…this book is for those who have been disillusioned by the empire’s way of running the world and are curious about what insights the Bible may contain on how to think about, organize and act collectively to restore a just and sustainable life on Earth.
John Stoner & Berry Friesen in the Preface to If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible (2014)
This week, we got an opportunity to sit down with John Stoner, the author (with Berry Friesen) of If Not Empire, What? (click here for free online PDF!) and co-curator (with Friesen) of the resource-rich site BibleAndEmpire.Net.
Radical Discipleship: Why does our world need a book like If Not Empire, What?
John Stoner: Our world is drowning in the propaganda and violence of empire, but the “people of the Book” are not seeing what is in their book to address the problem of empire. In fact, among the bewildering maze of christianities offered to our world, one of the most popular ones in America seeks to use the Bible to justify what can only be called egregious offenses against God and humanity. So we’re saying, take another (or your first) look at the book.
RD: What is your relationship with Berry, have you done work like this together before and what led you two to join together on this project?
JS: About six years ago we began to talk about theological, political and biblical questions because we live in the same community and are both Mennonites, and found we share some similar views. Now with our wives, two other couples and two singles we’re in a spontaneous discipleship group together. Our first shared project was offering a class at the local Parish Resource Center titled “Another Way to Run the World, The Bible’s Message of Peace.” This book got started 18 months ago when Berry approached me with the idea and I didn’t know any better than to agree to it.
RD: Never heard of a “spontaneous discipleship group!” What’s that like?
JS: Good question. I’ll have to ask the others. This is the first time I, or anybody that I know of, described us this way, so it’s a little difficult….Well, we’re spontaneous in that we formed without any template or uber-organization causing or encouraging us to form. About 2 years ago. And spontaneous in our agenda, usually doing some reading suggested by one of the group, for our discussion. Our group of 8 includes a Mennonite pastor born and raised in Kenya, and his wife, a self-described atheist, an elderly widow and an elderly single woman both ex-school teachers. And discipleship in our commitment to follow Jesus.
RD: What sort of push back do you anticipate receiving from critics of this book?
JS: Well, I expect most of the push back to come from apologists for empire, postured as christians, not as generals or talk show hosts (actually, some might be). Push back will come from people so used to letting their view of the Bible trump their view of God that they don’t even know they’re doing that. They may say that we are undermining the authority of scripture, and we’ll respond that we’re lifting up the authority of the best in scripture to critique the worst in scripture (which is of course what the scriptures themselves are doing.)
RD: You write that “on balance, the biblical message subverts” 3 major assumptions of our contemporary world: the supremacy of the marketplace, the mentality of empire and life after death. But there are passages in Scripture that support these. How ought we to deal with these?
JS: I think we should deal with such texts as less than adequate efforts to address difficult questions of life. The texts of the Bible–the writers of the Bible–argue with each other. To be honest with it and ourselves, we’re just going to have to allow them to do that, and seek, as they did, to find the deeper truths God, Jesus, the Spirit want to reveal to us. We say “on balance,” and, yes, we see all readers/interpreters of the Bible doing some kind of balancing of what they emphasize and what they downplay or omit. Foundationally, we see Jesus doing that with the scriptures he had. He didn’t try to make it all say the same thing or treat it all as equally important or true.
RD: How would you describe a community of faith that reads this book, discerns its implications together and then lives it out?
JS: It will be a community troubling the world and in trouble with the world.
At the end of the book’s 7 introductory chapters on the biblical worldview, we say on page 42, “The communities of followers that emerged after his [Jesus’] death gave us a glimpse of the positive impact such nonviolent passion can have on the world. Just as Jesus predicted, his disciples accomplished great things (John 14:12). Yet as they began to make a broader impact on society, the empire violent repressed their movement. Some Jesus followers persisted despite the violence, while others accommodated empire’s demands. We will survey texts reflecting this tension in Chapter 22.”
John Stoner is a lifelong social activist. He founded Every Church A Peace Church and is a founding member of Christian Peacemaker Teams and the KAIROS School of Spiritual Formation. Since serving as pastor of a congregation in Harrisburg, PA, John has mixed his passion for peacemaking with carpentry, gardening and mentoring other activists. He is a member of Akron Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania.
Berry Friesen started off as high-school teacher. His meandering career has taken him into the practice of law, senior management of Mennonite Central Committee, and public policy advocacy for food security, good nutrition and access to health care. He is a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and the author of Water from Another Time: Today’s Questions, Yesterday’s Wisdom.