Discipleship in the Empire

There are times when the questions of someone else linger like the sweet taste of honey. These are the kinds of questions that you savor, and long for the answer but know deep down that the answer will never be quite as satisfying as the question itself.

My sister in faith Dana Cassell asked me one such question over lunch. “How do we live faithfully in the midst of Empire?” As soon as the point of the question mark lifted her intonation, I knew it was that kind of query. And it was one I knew that any thoughts would pale in comparison to the penetrating insight the question itself revealed. It was the question of first Christians as the Apostles spread throughout Rome. It was the question Hippolytus tried to articulate in his list of jobs a new Christian must renounce before baptism. And it was the question that drove the likes of Augustine and Chyrsostom to preach against attending the “spectacles” in the colosseums and theaters of the day. And though each one offered a short answer, it is in the question itself that we find the heart of our discipleship. So long as we can finally dig beneath the answers themselves to articulate the question itself. And like so many other times, Dana put words to the sweetness of the quest.

So I only attempt an answer with fear and trembling, and hopefully not gnashing of teeth.

In his book “The Way of the Heart” Henri Nouwen presented a captivating description of the desert in the spiritual life. In the desert, the monks sought a solitude that would transform them. This furnace, Nouwen said, refined them by melting off the bits of illusion that ran deep in their souls. Though we might think of the ascetic project as relative late comer into the history of the church, Nouwen pointed to Jesus’s journey in the desert. With forty days alone in the wilderness, Jesus confronted the temptations we all face, temptations that are precisely what Empire wants us to pursue.

Here is Nouwen’s account of the temptations:
“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give all these kingdoms’). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter— the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” 25-26

The stories of Jesus’ temptation were foundational for the growth of early Christian asceticism. By withdrawing to the desert wilderness, Jesus prefigured the necessary withdraw from the confines of Constantinian Rome, from the Empire. The wilderness, it was said, was the place where the demons could be confronted face to face. It was their domain, just as Satan confronted Jesus while he fasted and prayed.

As Christianity grew in social privilege and became increasingly intertwined with the Empire, throngs of people fled to the desert. There were those who sought to follow the example of Jesus, and those who came just to see how these spiritual athletes fared in the wilderness. Those spiritual athletes embodied a detachment that seemed admirable to many, all except those who found new power and influence in the relationship between church and empire.

However, the mythology of the desert hermits reveal that the retreat into the wilderness solitude was no easy feat. There are paintings and icons that depict the first monk Antony wrestling with demons who pulled his hair and beard, his body often in postures reminiscent of the cross. As Nouwen says, it was like a furnace that sped up transformation.

There in the desert, alone without the distractions of “normal” life, the monks confronted the illusions the Empire sought so hard to maintain. The same is true for us, though we clearly don’t see the struggle with solitude as a battle with demons. When we finally pull away from the drone of images and stories from our culture, we are left to hear the inner monolog— all the stories we have internalized both about ourselves and the world around us. Those tapes in our head are there all the time, it is just that in solitude there is nothing to distract us.

I remember my first day of solitude retreat. Honestly I kind of fumbled around. I took a nap for a couple of hours, and I walked around the grounds of the retreat house. But that only took up like two and half hours. There was a whole day yet. So I sifted through the book case, stared at the crack in the wall, and only fueled what I could only describe as boredom. There was nothing to do… no email to answer, no tv shows to catch up on, no commercials to make fun of, and no one to talk too. I honestly spent most of my time that day trying to avoid any kind of self-reflection. I simply did not want to do the work of solitude.

We are culturally shaped to avoid that kind of work. Marketers and TV execs do their best to keep us distracted. In fact, they work to make sure that we think and behave in ways that support the political economy of the society. That means keeping people from asking the tough questions. And they try to make sure we have a common understanding of what is good and right. Our flourishing, they tell us is tied to a thriving economy of goods and services, and the power and prestige of the state.

Even when they hold up the lives of significant men and women, they do so in ways that make them seem almost super human— they were powerful, relevant, and spectacular. They were able to meet the needs of the time, with insightful action, and do it in ways that captured the attention of everyone around them. And the spin doctors do their best to hold them up as icons of our time while trying to not make them too inspiring so that people don’t get the hair brained idea that too much needs to change around us. In order to be important people, we need to seek power and influence, and most of all be charismatic.

As Matthew tells us in the scriptures, this is nothing new. Even Jesus confronted that image of the charismatic and powerful leader. Or, in more theological terms, he too was tempted by the false stories about power, prestige, and relevance. As Thomas Merton has said, these were the stories of the false self— that self-understanding that is fueled by the needs and desires of the Empire. However, in facing these temptations head on, Jesus also reveals to us a way to hear the story, not from the perspective of the Empire, but from the wisdom of God. At each point, he rebuffed the false temptations with the words of scripture. He was not, then, alone in his solitude, left to face the temptations without another story.

The desert monk Evagrius of Pontus wrote an entire collection of sayings that followed the model of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan. In a small tract aptly titled “Talking Back” Evagrius offered the monks battling the stories of the Empire in solitude a list of scriptures that could be recited to rebuff their own temptations. Like Jesus, if they found themselves battling the temptations of particular demons, the monks could recite the promises and truths of scripture. As he says in the open of the book, “In the time of struggle , when the demons make war against us and hurl their arrows at us, let us answer them from the Holy Scriptures, lest the unclean thoughts persist in us, enslave the soul through the sin of actual deeds, and so defile it and plunge it into the death brought by sin.” (49)

This kind of instrumental approach to scripture, using small verses apart from their context, flies in the face of all the interpretive values we have learned in Sunday School. What is more, the idea that we combat demons contradicts our modern understanding of the world. So it is no wonder that many readers of Evagrius psychologize his system. By recalling the scriptures to mind in the moments of angst in solitude, the monk re-ordered his mind. The words of the Bible countered those tapes in their head that celebrate power, vice, and prestige. In the moment of distraction and temptation, the holy scriptures were a kind of detox from the false images of the self the empire banked on.

In solitude, accompanied by the scriptures themselves, we find a new way through the loop holes of Empire. How do we live in Empire, as disciples of Jesus? We follow his example. We make time for retreats into solitude, and confront our false selves with the words of scripture. This isn’t an easy answer to the beautifully sweet question Dana asked a few weeks ago. It isn’t even a complete answer. However, in our work around the denomination, it is one that pulls us from temptations to be powerful, relevant, and spectacular. For in rejecting these temptations with the holy words of scripture, we too might be attended to by the angels.


Filed under Discipleship

4 responses to “Discipleship in the Empire

  1. Bill Kinzie

    Joshua, You describe rather accurately the problem and partially the roads to solution. We are exhorted to find meaning for our lives through community and yet that community is tainted by its immersion “in the world”. We can withdraw for a weekend or longer if finances allow…. but eventually we’re back in the muck of reality and its infections. Much easier said than done.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Bill, this is very true and a helpful push back. It certainly does assume some kind capacity to get away. And I have to admit, since that first experience with solitude I have done this very, very rarely. In a way, I am writing to myself here.

      However, times of solitude need not happen in nice retreat centers (though church camps often offer such support), and it need not be for days at a time. We can make time for times of solitude (just for a few hours, maybe at our church meeting house, or even in a room alone at home). And what if our congregations set aside funds and other support for persons to take a day’s retreat somewhere? Could we even imagine congregations holding an all church retreat that had significant time for silence and solitude.

      Just some thoughts as I pondered your comment…

  2. Thanks for these words, Josh. It is incredibly helpful, and a wonderful starting place.

    My two reflections after reading this I think wrap back around on each other. The first is that, after his time in the desert, Jesus returned ready to confront the empire, and lay the foundation for its dismantling.

    The second one is that, in the midst of the empire today, being able to find spaces and time for solitude can be a marker of privilege. It means not having to scrape together 3 part time jobs to get by. It means having a support system you can rely on – for childcare, just for starters. For one living on the margins of society, I wonder what solitude as the starting point looks like.

    • Joshua Brockway

      I agree Jordan, on both accounts. Regarding the capacity to take retreats see some of my pondering in the earlier comment. I especially wonder what role congregations can play in supporting people in such practices– making funds available, offering child care support, and even holding open space in the building or hosting solitude days. I also think we should think tactically about how solitude and silence can be incorporated into daily rhythms.

      Related to the first point, namely that solitude is not a permanent state of being, the historical record is much different from the idealization of the practice. In the Life of Antony, he seems never to be able to find the solitude he longs for. People flood his cave and as Athanasius says, the desert became a new kind of city from all the people coming to see the holy man. Even the earlier monastic communities were often just outside the city bounds, and the monks would come in frequently for things like Sunday worship. In essence they were never fully withdrawn from the society they supposedly fled. Benedict’s kind of cloistered model was even a way to restructure the social space, as evidenced by the number of monks that took on other offices– like the Papacy at some points. So solitude was rarely totalized.

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