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Mar/Apr 2001 issue (#50)


'60s Dream Lives On

Party Troopers

Suit Filed Against George W. Bush

"Friends in High Places"

Baby Bush Bombs Baghdad

Don't Put the Utilities Back in Charge

Biblically-Grounded Movements For Progressive Change In Washington

How to Run for City Council

Mad Cow: Coming to the U.S.?

Monoculture and Mad Cows

Itching to Ride Light Rail

Is Work Killing You?

Escaping the Globalized Gym

Seattle's Clattering Poets

A Puppetista Manifesto

Living Outside Empire

Don't Put the Utilities Back in Charge

ACORN's Falling

Social Transformation Explained? Technogod

Spokane Free-speech Battle


Reader Mail


Urban Work

Media Beat

Nature Doc

Rad Videos

Do Something!

Reel Underground

Living Outside Empire

by Wes Howard-Brook, contributor

“I will tell you something about stories…They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, to fight off illness and death. …Their evil is mighty, but it can’t stand up to our stories …”

Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Of all the peoples on this planet, we of the Western European cultural heritage are just about the most alienated from our traditions of sacred stories. Folks in Latin America, Africa and Asia know well that their sense of who they are and how they are to live is formed primarily by the telling and retelling of the ancient narratives passed on from the grandparents through the generations.

But we who have lived for several centuries in the separation of mind from spirit have largely cut ourselves off from the power of this tradition. The Enlightenment put “learning” in the universities and “religion” in the churches. The cartoonish and sometimes downright violent abuse of the ancient stories by some breeds of fundamentalists have added further to this sense of alienation, so that the collection known as the Bible has become largely irrelevant to most secular intellectuals seeking progressive social change.

This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, it needlessly tends to separate “secular” from “faith-based” activists who would benefit from working together. But I believe more importantly, it robs us of what Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko calls our best—if not only—tool for resisting evil.

As someone raised in a secular Jewish home who worked for years as an antitrust lawyer for federal and Washington state governments, the Bible was not for me a natural place to go for wisdom either. Its stories seemed laden with absurd superstitions and narrow-minded prejudice. I have come to realize that these views were the result mostly of my own ignorance about the Bible, influenced by corporate media’s caricature of those who take the Bible seriously as right wing nuts or naïve fools. Not wanting to be seen as either of those, I left the Bible alone for decades.

I spent some years in a spiritual search and ended up, to my own surprise, being baptized a Catholic in the 70s. But still the Bible wasn’t of much meaning to me until about a dozen years ago when I discovered the tradition of “radical discipleship.” Led by New Testament scholar-activists such as Ched Myers and Daniel Berrigan, and supported by Hebrew Bible scholars such as Walter Brueggemann, I was drawn into the Bible’s core message. In a nutshell it is this: the Creator of All That Is seeks to gather a people who live together in accordance with the Creator’s ways, outside of systems of human domination (“empire”).

One of the beauties I have come to savor in the Bible’s story-telling is that it does not narrate an idealized picture of people faithfully responding to this call. Rather, it portrays first Israel and then Jesus’ disciples constantly resisting not empire, but rather the divine invitation. In other words, it shows us how we are: both seekers of truth, justice and love, and people who simply want to “fit in with the neighbors.” Or, in the words of Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

For Jews, this means the constant tension between living as a covenant people drawn out of Egypt’s imperial orbit (and later, Babylon’s) and wanting a human king “like all the other nations.” It means ignoring the pleas of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who sought nothing more than to call people back to their original commitment to justice and loving kindness but were usually greeted with jeers and violence. For Christians, it means trusting that God’s power of life (resurrection) is greater than any imperial death threats, and living in a community (church) which provides living evidence of this trust.

In my more than twelve years of teaching and writing about the Bible, I am constantly amazed at how unaware most people are of this tradition, even among church members. People often express outrage: “why have they kept us from hearing this message before!” But the answer is as old as the Bible itself. The joyous invitation to come out of systems of domination and oppression and live as we are meant to has generally been met with a terrified (and hence, often violent) defense of the status quo. So, prophets get stoned and crucified, God’s word remains locked up behind gilded walls.

But throughout history, there have always been those who have known that the Bible is the West’s most subversive dynamite. The Creator continues to call people out of empire and into communities of love and justice, and throughout the world and in our region, progressive movements continue to be fueled by these stories (see sidebar). Reading the Bible may turn out to be the most subversive act of resistance yet.

Wes Howard-Brook can be reached via his website, www.openaccess.org/~wjhb.

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