Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner, “If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible”

The Abstract

Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner, If Not Empire, What?: A Survey of the Bible, CreateSpace, 2014. 354 pp. $17.00. ISBN: 9780692344781. For a little over a decade now, “empire criticism”—an interpretive method that aims to uncover the anti-imperial message in various biblical texts—has been on the ascent, especially among New Testament scholars. Friesen and […]

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Book review by Karin Holsinger Sherman

Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner, If Not Empire, What?: A Survey of the Bible, CreateSpace, 2014. 354 pp. $17.00. ISBN: 9780692344781.

For a little over a decade now, “empire criticism”—an interpretive method that aims to uncover the anti-imperial message in various biblical texts—has been on the ascent, especially among New Testament scholars. Friesen and Stoner’s book makes a real contribution to this approach, not only by presenting a popular account of empire criticism—one that will be especially valuable for Anabaptists—but also by trying to show that this anti-imperial message is continuous with a tradition that runs from the Old Testament through to the early church and is embodied especially in Christ. The key word in their book is empire: “a system of coordinated control that enriches itself through overwhelming socio-economic and military power at the global level” and “portrays itself as the primary source of security and peace in the world” (7). The authors, for their part, view empire as the primary threat to life and peace on earth, and they attempt to show how valuable the Bible can be as a source of imaginative and political resistance to this global threat.

But hasn’t the Bible often been a tool of oppressors? Friesen and Stoner argue that the history of the Hebrews is actually a history of two competing visions of God, one allied with the political and sacral centers of imperial power, the other the friend of the dispossessed and marginalized. Moreover, throughout the book, the authors provide an accessible account of the ancient contexts and alternative worldviews that so often prove crucial to a robust interpretation of such biblical stories. By directing our attention to these historical and imaginative contexts, Friesen and Stoner not only push the willing reader past simplistic Sunday School interpretations but also lead us to deeper, richer, and more demanding readings of long-familiar texts. For example, they reveal the original political meanings of words such as “gospel,” “salvation,” and “ekklesia” (church). Their interpretation of Revelation is especially beautiful and instructive. The stories, as they tell them, offer fresh insight into the faith of Jesus and the character of YHWH’s kingdom, correcting distortions and cultural complicity that have too often embedded themselves in Christians’ belief systems.

There are many who will profit from this book. It will be edifying to Anabaptists, especially to many of us who already have an anti-imperial worldview and who want to make sense of the Old and New Testaments within our established worldviews. I imagine that the book will also be of interest to radically minded non-Christians who seek an alternative to empire and who will find surprising and fascinating information about the relevance of biblical history to their project. On the other hand, the book may be unconvincing to Christians of other traditions and those unfamiliar with the empire-criticism approach to the Bible. Friesen and Stoner are not biblical scholars in their own right, nor do they often appeal to the work of ecumenical biblical scholars; rather, they rely almost entirely on a single work by Wes Howard-Brook for their textual interpretation. As Friesen and Stoner know well, anyone can justify their doctrine with Scripture, so even in a popular work one desires more scholarly references to establish the credibility of various readings. On more than a couple of occasions, the authors claim to understand texts that have puzzled Christians and scholars for centuries—the messages are anti-imperial, of course! They may well be right, but without further reference to reliable sources, a skeptic could very easily dismiss their entire project.

One might also worry that the book relies too heavily on a binary categorization of texts as either pro-empire or anti-empire. Anti-empire stories are praised, while pro-empire stories are vilified as coming from places of imperial power; indeed, Friesen and Stoner often to seem to run the Bible through a kind of imperially poisoned-well hermeneutic—any text written by those close to the levers of the empire’s power necessarily serves the interests of empire. Members of the empire are always and unforgivably suspect. Empire ruins and poisons everything; thus, those in league with the empire cannot have authentic relationships with God. Any Old Testament book or story that holds a “David-and-Solomon” worldview (or honors the kings in any way) or that emphasizes temple worship is pro-empire and dismissed. Because this anti-imperial lens is laid upon the Scriptures, one is led to ignore or even deny the other ways God may speak to us through the Word, even through those ghastly pro-empire voices (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, First Isaiah, the David tradition, etc.). The sheer wrongness of empire is so absolute that the reader is led to imagine that empire may be the only real evil about which we ought ever to speak. But those of us with a long experience of the redeeming but also flawed reality of our churches might wonder: is it really the case that small, nonviolent, forgiving, and suffering communities are guaranteed to be righteous? Is centralized power the only world-destructive malice with which we have to contend?

These questions lead to a final concern: Friesen and Stoner’s exhaustive focus on the political leaves one to wonder, where is God? To their credit, the authors do believe that life is more than political community: life involves love and loss and the entire panoply of human relationships (201). Nevertheless, there are only a handful of references to life also being about a living relationship with God (YHWH). Instead, Christianity seems to be first and foremost a political revolution. The work and message of Jesus is simply the formation of an alternative community, a new social system, one founded on justice, compassion, forgiveness, and nonviolent resistance rather than domination, vengeance, and bloodshed (see 248–49, 271). Indeed, these are all essential to the kingdom of God, but the presence of God itself is strangely elided by Friesen and Stoner’s account. Throughout the vast majority of the book, prayer is not mentioned as an important facet of this community—as if the strength to stand against empire and the wisdom for justice, compassion, and nonviolence could be imagined apart from calling on God’s Spirit in, with, and for us. For readers who believe—and believe it is extremely important—that God comes near to us, lives in us, and transforms our spirits with, yes, a kind of supernatural love, the vision of community presented by Friesen and Stoner may appear too much like a merely political vision of utopia.

My concerns notwithstanding, If Not Empire, What? is a valuable and instructive book, especially for those of us eager to work for the kingdom of God and to confront the empire. Throughout their book, Friesen and Stoner reiterate the radical, anti-imperial voice that the body of Christ needs to hear again and again if it is to make manifest the kingdom of God, here and now. It is a hard message but one we need to hear until all of our lives—political as well as spiritual—are fully conformed to the life of Christ.

Karin Holsinger Sherman is a writer and mother living at the center of imperial academic power in Cambridge, United Kingdom. She feels conflicted about this.