Set fire to Empire

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Let’s get to the point

To follow Jesus is to build a new world from the ashes of the old. Sometimes, for the sake of justice, we’re called to start the fires that create those ashes.

Last February, Catholic Workers Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya set fire to heavy machinery being used to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline. They were willing to be misunderstood, arrested and imprisoned. They were willing to fight for the earth and for God’s children. These are Christ’s friends and accomplices.

Just as Jesus was criticized for making a mess of the Temple, Reznicek and Montoya have also been condemned. They’re not the first. Christians condemned the Camden 28, a group of Catholic anti-Vietnam War activists who raided a draft board. They condemned participants in the Plowshares movement, the Christian anti-nuclear activists who advocate for direct action that damages weapons and military property.

Jesus’ disciples remember: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Christians would do well to remember that zeal for what God has made – the temples of our bodies, the tabernacle of Creation – is supposed to be a mark of our love by which they will know we are Christians.

This zeal is what makes a revolution. This zeal is love. It drives people to stand up and fight back for the sake of the unheard and oppressed. These are who Christ came for, and this is their good news. People with disabilities, prisoners, the poor – intimately acquainted with systemic violence – they’re at the center of God’s good news, heirs of God’s kingdom.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If this is our call, then there’s a lot of work to do. People are suffering today. People need liberation today. People are waiting for the Kingdom, and they’re dying. Today. Empire derives its power from the suffering of the oppressed. And it will continue unless we stop it – until we smash it.

The rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces for evil in the heavenly realms – this is empire.

Empire is capitalism. Empire is white supremacy. Empire is sexism, homophobia, transphobia. Empire is the cultural systems that crush God’s children, God’s image-bearers. Empire seeks to destroy the very Kin-dom of God.

Empire’s foot soldiers are all who support the status quo, all who can afford to survive the suffering imposed on their neighbors. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. Some do not care because they do not know. Some are unable to care. They benefit by not caring. After all, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for such people to enter the kingdom of God.

We cannot wait for change. Such people cannot change because they are convinced that their freedom requires that others continue to be oppressed.

Jesus fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He rebuked religious leaders and the rich, overturned tables and cleared the temple courts with a whip. He didn’t waste time reasoning. He acted for the people and against the systems that enslaved them.

Where Jesus goes, we must follow. Even with a whip. Also with loaves and fishes. Always in solidarity.

But Jesus is the Prince of Peace, some might say. This is violence.

I disagree.

Violence drives a Dodge Challenger into the crowd. Violence shoots from the thirty-second floor of the Mandala Bay. Violence breaks into a Bible study or a dance club or an elementary school. Violence questions your right to vote. Violence refuses medical treatment, asks you what you were wearing and how much you had to drink and why you were there in the first place. Violence drags you from a desk or tackles you at a community pool. Violence offers you a golf trophy and scoffs at your ingratitude when you ask for clean water.

Violence offers to pray and says it wishes it could do more. Things are going to be different, it promises. You’ll see. Turn the other cheek, it says, just before it turns away.

God’s liberating love demands radical empathy – living in communion with God and with God’s children. This love – Jesus’ love – teaches us how to love, how to be human, even unto death.

God’s Kingdom is a new heaven and a new earth, a place that provides shelter, feeds the hungry, heals the sick. God’s Kingdom springs forth from the scorched earth of Empire – a place that kills the weak, steals from the poor, and destroys all that is beautiful.

It’s time to burn it down.

Sabotage the pipelines that bleed oil into rivers. Tear down the monuments memorializing slave owners and racists. Set free the prisoners. Disarm the police. “Peace, peace,” they say.

So we shall make peace. We will be insulted. We will be persecuted. People will falsely say all kinds of evil against us. But we will make peace.

As white nationalists are emboldened.

As we witness state-sponsored repression.

As people are beaten and bloodied in the streets.

We must ask ourselves: are we willing to act? Will we sabotage the means of oppression? Will we use force to fight for the freedom of fascism’s victims? Will we surrender our sense of propriety, our personal piety, our ethical purity for the sake of God’s children?

Or will we sit in the marketplaces with blood on our hands:

We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.

Empire cannot be reformed or transformed. Instead, it will be shown for what it is. It will be revealed with fire.

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”