Empire, Revelation and the Prophetic: A Conversation With Marc H. Ellis
Ellis teaching a class in the late 1970s.
by CJ Chanco
Marc Ellis has written over two dozen texts on the themes of justice, reconciliation, peace and conflict in Latin America and the Middle East. He is best known for his work on the links between the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestine conflict. In his latest release, The Heartbeat of the Prophetic, Marc expands on his notion of a “state of exile” which has gathered together a new diaspora of believers alienated from the mainstream of their respective faith traditions.
In a recent visit to the Philippines, he shared his views on Empire, revelation, and the prophetic tradition in Judaism. A tradition of prophetic dissent which, for all the imagery it evokes of romantic martyrdom and blaring trumpets, means above all, standing humbly with the oppressed.
In your work on Jewish liberation theology you elaborate strongly on the links between the pursuit of justice and the prophetic tradition. At the heart of that tradition is Isaiah’s injunction to break all chains of bondage and set slaves free. This stands in stark contrast to the historical and contemporary legacies of all three major faith traditions that, for all their differences, draw common roots in Isaiah. I think it was the anti-apartheid cleric Allan Boesak who said that prophecy is much less about predicting the future than contradicting the present. Can you elaborate on that?
Unfortunately, the sharp contrast you draw between Isaiah’s prophetic mission, the traditions that carry Isaiah in their canon and teachings, and the present isn’t as stark as we would like it to be. We like to that think that colonialisms of all kinds have hijacked our traditions. But our traditions are complex and carry colonialism and anti-colonialisms of all sorts within them. Our task is to sort them out and choose in every tradition. Though I essentially agree with Boesaks’s position on the prophetic, even the prophetic is complicated. The prophetic, like our traditions, has to be negotiated. By calling for a negotiated prophetic, I return to a necessary theme in all our endeavors. That our quest isn’t to return to an innocence that wasn’t even there in the beginning. Rather we have to move forward with our histories. Moving forward, even with the best of intentions, we will confront the empire within our quest for community. This means that, like our traditions, the prophetic impulse, must continually be examined, disciplined and critiqued.
Much of your work on peace and conflict revolves around Israel-Palestine, but more conflicts have engulfed the Middle East in recent years. It’s no surprise that a number of religious people say we are approaching the end times. In your lectures you repeatedly mention “the end”, not in the sense of the apocalypse as a singular event or an endpoint, but as a process and the precipice at which humanity gets to choose to live differently in the world. What do you mean by this? Is there an end in sight?
When the world ends, it ends. The end won’t come by way of God or even humanity reaching a perfection or nadir of existence. I don’t resonate with apocalyptic theology, even when it has political elements I agree with. Christians especially need to be on guard with regard to apocalyptic drumbeats. Even mobilizing Christians for justice – as Christians – seems to me misguided. The issues with Islam in this regard are obvious. About Jewish life, the end I speak and write about has to do with our ethical witness. I don’t see Jewishness today as a benchmark of morality.
You’ve spoken much about the occupation of Palestine and the Wall as a metaphor for Empire. Indeed, we seem to be living in a world with not just one Wall, but many. I believe one reason that the prophets were called was to urge the Israelites to remember and to repent. Theirs was a project of revelation, however painful; a process of revealing to the Israelites how far they had departed from the will of God. To what extent would you say that revelation is, in Fr. Berrigan’s words, the unveiling of empire?[i]
Empire takes on a life of its own. Though we say, write and sing that empire will be defeated, it won’t. If one empire goes down, another will arise. Of course, there will always be those who resist empire. Thus the search for commitment and community will remain. Civilization isn’t insanity as Berrigan suggests. Our civilization isn’t insane. That language is too strong. It’s apocalyptic in tone and substance. What do we do with this apocalypse, which has been ongoing for centuries and will continue? Rather, we need to identify community within empire, witness to it and seek to expand the message of community. How do we live within empire? That’s the question. The prophet investigates empire, sides with those excluded and denigrated by empire as a way of raising community as an alternative witness to the possibility of meaning and justice. Remembering and repenting is one aspect of the prophetic for sure. In the end, though, the prophet gathers light in the darkness of human history.
The power of the Revelation story, in the Christian tradition, is the fact that God intervened directly in a historical moment of a colonised Jerusalem, and by dying, triumphed over death. Today, Empire cloaks itself in the promise of life, and an oppressive and often violent optimism is the order of the day; blind faith in the power of the powerful to turn our crises into opportunities for all – something I think is akin to hubris. But beneath all this is an overriding principle that Empire is a civilising force. How does this hubris compare with the more sober, tragic vision shared by the major faith traditions, with their call for redemption to make real a politics of social justice and compassion on Earth?
I take issue with the “more sober, tragic vision shared by the major faith traditions.” Religions of all stripes are more than willing to jump on the political and economic empire wagon for their own empire benefit. Constantinian religiosity is a major feature of religions when they have a chance to make it big. At the same time, religions carry subversive elements within them. These can be highlighted in pointing where the empire has it wrong. Empire is always negotiated. So is our religiosity. Thus, we need to cross boundaries to link with those who seek to negotiate empire on behalf of the victims of empire. Rather than apocalypse, that negotiation is our witness. It is the ground from which prophets arose and continue to arise in our time.
You speak of negotiating Empire as opposed to negotiating with it. After all, to negotiate with something requires a party willing to respond. Who or what exactly are we negotiating with, and to what extent are they too victims of a system that they see as their redemption?
Your point about negotiation is important. It would be better if those who oppose empire could resist, oppose and transform empire into community. There may be times in history when this happens, though, as we know, often another empire emerges within the ashes of the old. This means that even a successful revolution is haunted by the next struggle. My sense is that the more usual course is a continual negotiation with empire – there being great losses and small victories. So our task is indeed much humbler, as you say, building for an alternative future that probably will not emerge whole. Still, that alternative, when it exists, is a future already arrived. We can’t allow cautionary notes to paralyze us. Even if empire triumphs in the end, as it seems to, and even if it is true that when one empire topples another takes its place, complacency is out of the question.
History is open. We don’t know when and where that opening will lead to significant change. Change is a sign of hope. Hope may bring more change. If the struggle for peace, justice and compassion will never end, hope also remains alive.
This “future in the present” is important for now and the time ahead. It’s even important for the history that came before, as a form of fidelity, as it were, to those who struggle in the past.
Do you think part of the problem is that those who seek change lack confidence in themselves, or have lost all faith in a higher cause? The apocalypse seems to be as much about the violence of Empire as it is an impasse on the part of those who resist, a collective failure of the imagination, a situation Roberto Unger calls “the tyranny of no alternatives‟. Are the Jeremiahs of our time destined to remain voices crying out in the wilderness?
The “tyranny of no alternatives” is an interesting turn of phrase with important consequences. Humanity moves forward and backward at the same time. This seems to be our fate. Indeed, there is no going back but when you’re in a blind alley, we have to think how to turn and begin again. Turning inward and outward is center of being religious and perhaps the best way of embracing the concept of conversion. In my way of thinking, conversion is the turning of the mind, body and heart toward the suffering as a way of recovering more deeply who we are called to be. As we turn, we experience deep opposition. We also find others on the same journey. Those we journey with are our community regardless of what geographic, cultural or religious background they come from. We often feel like we are crying out in the wilderness. Indeed, the aloneness, the solitude, of the prophetic is deep. That aloneness also links us to others. We are not alone.
[i] ““Babylon’s moral life is not a passage from crime to repentance, but only from crime to crime. Ourselves? From no-one do we hear, after Vietnam, “Remember, and repent. Only, “forget and forget.‟ Thus our history becomes a progressive breakaway from all restraint. The empire rides and flogs the four horses: death, plague, famine, war in her wake. And we call it civilisation, sanity.”
The nightmare of God (1983, p. 120) – a book Fr. Berrigan wrote in prison after being caught up in the anti-Vietnam protests.
About the Author:
CJ Chanco is a freelance writer and itinerant geographer based at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.