Sharon D. Welch
Fortress Press, 2004
Every prophetic voice, if it remains only prophetic, remains partial. Still, our culture in particular stands in stark need of a prophetic awakening, and Sharon Welch’s book After Empire promises to contribute to our coming-to-awareness.
Welch embodies both biblical prophetic traditions, that of judgement and that of comfort. Like Isaiah, Welch holds up the arrogance of the colonialism of the United States like a bloody garment and makes us squirm. Like the school of Second Isaiah, she also offers the promise of restoration and the hope of returning from our self-created exile.
Being partial, though, this prophetic voice rejects too much. Welch lacks a willingness to engage the reality of human sin and divine forgiveness. Because religious categories have been abused so thoroughly over the history of Christendom, she admits of apparently unavoidable human violence and oppression, but declines to name this universally present tendency. So also, because the experience of the transcendent has been twisted so frequently into a justification for either domination or quietism, she rejects the value of the divine entirely.
As readers, we can look past these excesses for the great worth of Welch’s analysis of U.S. imperialism and its costs, as well as her offering of already-existing ways of being-together that hold the promise of non-oppressive ways to live together on a shrinking planet.
The title of the book may initially suggest a utopianism that is tired and no longer credible. The myths of "human progress" have been dealt a death blow by the genocides of the 20th Century and the exposure of our own country’s capacity for cruelty and debasement of other peoples. Welch, however rejects any utopian vision for the future, preferring an engagement with the present that does not depend on the promise of a specific outcome or timeline for its sense of validity. Indeed, citing Foucault, she reminds the reader of the dangerous tendency of utopianism to evoke unimaginable violence.
A Call to Repentance
As with every prophetic voice in the history of Israel, the call begins with a cry of "Turn!" It is an important part of that call for Welch to acknowledge the seductive qualities of Empire. She makes repeated reference to the arguments of Robert Kagan and Niall Ferguson as counterpoints to her own. Kagan and Ferguson both, for different sets of reasons, argue that it is necessary for the United States to use, for the betterment of all the cultures of the world, the hegemony that has fallen to us. For them, empire is preferable to the chaos that must inevitably follow should we abdicate our position as the world’s police force. Welch does not pretend that empire offers no benefits. "This book is a celebration, an invocation, and an exaltation of the logic that both knows the intoxication of Empire and yet confronts the costs of imperial power." (p. xv)
Lacking the recourse to revelation as the means of awakening her readers to the costs of our ignorance of or paralysis in the face of our imperial behavior, Welch turns to the experience of those silenced and nearly exterminated by our sense of "manifest destiny." She turns to the experience of the Natives of this continent.
Looking into the lives of Native Americans, Welch finds both a history that has to give any Euro-American pause, as well as an approach to life together that offers an alternative to the duality of most American existence. Even as she cites brutality after brutality, duplicity after duplicity, she also holds up a tolerance for difference among Natives that inspires this writer as a proponent of "preaching peace." There is a refusal to extrude the scapegoat that suggests that these societies had already learned the difficult lessons of mimesis. "Neither the worsts blunders or disasters nor the greatest financial prosperity and joy will ever be permitted to isolate anyone from the rest of the group… You are never the first to suffer a grave loss or profound humiliation. You are never the first , and you understand that you will probably not be the last to commit or be victimized by a repugnant act." (p. 53)
Welch also recognizes in the Native way a sense of inter-relatedness, interdependence that echoes the notion of "interdividualilty" that is so important to mimetic theory. The extent, though, of the inter-connectedness goes beyond the human web of connections implied in interdividuality and includes all of Creation. This is, of course, a way of seeing that promises peace not just between persons, but between humans and the planet we call our home.
Still, one of the authors on the "Beauty Way" that Welch relies upon heavily also asks that "that we pay as much attention to the failings of Native American communities as we do to the successes and creative insights. (Sanchez, p. 68) We could have wished that Welch had followed this advice more closely. Her descriptions of Native ways communicate so little awareness of "failings" that it might undermine the skeptical reader’s confidence in their positive contributions.
The Promise of Hope
"Hope" is a word that Welch eschews, seeing it as an indication that the individual or society is more concerned about an imagined future than the present. She points out the way that this kind of hope produces inflexibility in us. She prefers that we ""embrace the fullness of the present, rather than utopian dreams of perfection." (p. 157) Still, hope is the only word available to describe the sense of the possible that the author creates as the book progresses.
Drawing on the non-philosophy of "engaged Buddhism," Welch finds a way of moving beyond the duality of "us/them." This gives us a spirituality that concretely produces in us a means of confronting the victimage system without making of the powerful a new set of scapegoats. She quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, "We have to see hardships brought about by others as a sort of natural disaster. These people make our lives difficult because they are ignorant, prisoners of their desires or their hatreds. If we speak angrily to them, and treat them as our enemy, then we are just doing what they are doing, and we are no different from them." We are, of course, instantly reminded of Jesus’ instruction to us that we "love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us."
Readers of Preaching Peace, intentional followers of Jesus, will find hers a description of spirituality that produces the results Jesus commends to us, a spirituality that can produce a non-victimizing peace. After the uncomfortable confrontation with the participation of the United States in its own holocaust, there is palpable relief at the invitation not to make enemies (scapegoats) of ourselves. There is also a sense that preaching peace is a real possibility. We can stand against principalities and powers without creating more wounds in the human community.
"What I Wished For"
Welch, early in her book, cites the value of "multiple truths." While I would have preferred to see one truth manifest in multiple ways, I am reminded that no one point of view can make a claim to comprehensiveness, least of all my own.
Rather than critiquing the absence of the transcendent in After Empire then, I would simply add that I see the transcendent in many places in the book. Welch frequently refers to the "sacredness" of things. For me this sacredness is not merely the result of my decision to revere them, but a quality bestowed upon them by virtue of their creation. Welch speaks frequently of the Native way of relating to all of nature without ever noting that Native Americans all understand that sacredness to be a gift of the "other" she declines to pursue.
Welch rightly rejects the vast majority of that which calls itself "Christianity." She rejects as dangerous all that she calls "messianic." I cannot help but think that, had she had more experience of the Christian message untrammeled by the mimetic overlays of institutional "churchianity," she would have been able to appeal to the creative parts of the tradition of many of her readers. Welch commends "practices of gratitude" without naming the one to whom gratitude is offered. This might have been a valuable addition.
Early on in the book, Welch says something interesting. "It may well be that the reason pacifist and prophetic movements are relatively weak in the face of military expansion and global capitalism is that we are less creative than they, because we, from our vantage point in the ideal, are less connected than they to the human and natural resources of the world around us." (p. 19) It is my experience that we are less creative because most of us are reluctant to avail ourselves of the (admittedly frightening at times) creative energies of the Creator. Our well-founded fear of the abuse of the energy that comes with the experience of the divine has caused us to rely too much on our own strength, and has given the edge to those who manipulate that energy to other ends.
In the end, these items we might have wished for do not outweigh the value of the book as a whole. The reader of After Empire will be given a powerful lever with which to dislodge her/himself from the comforts we enjoy as beneficiaries of Empire. In the Native traditions the reader will find an alternative to the Western ways of division and polemic, as well as an approach to being that makes this alternative possible.
Welch offers both suggestions for "participatory democracy" and in "engaged Buddhism" a spirituality that can undergird the practice of compassion and tolerance for difference that are the hallmarks of peace. The release of attachment to even our most precious dreams makes us better advocates for a peace that "passes understanding," even (or especially) our own. The readers of Preaching Peace will find in Sharon Welch an ally in the struggle to make peace a reality.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Krantz