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Several evenings ago, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Seminar for the Discussion of Early Catholic Christianity. There Dr. Warren Carter from Brite Divinity School presented a paper: “Matthew: Empire, Synagogues, and Horizontal Violence.” While the dialogue that evening certainly deserves comment, that shall have to wait for a later post. That evening, I sat next to Harold Hoehner, Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Little did I know, that night would be the last time I would encounter Dr. Hoehner on this side of the great divide. This morning, Dr. Hoehner passed on, leaving behind a cacophony of voices who will sorely miss him. Hoehner was a stalwart of scholarship, exemplified a charitable fair-mindedness, and without question played the most pivotal role in shaping the face of the New Testament department both in makeup and fundamental exegetical methodology over the past quarter century.

Although I was not personally one of Dr. Hoehner’s students, my several encounters with him were always warm. He was understanding and very thoughtful. The other night, just in our casual conversation, these characteristics were apparent. He was interested in me and my studies. Upon hearing which undergraduate I attended, Professor Hoehner immediately brought up a former student of his, Bruce Rosdahl, who was one of my professors in undergraduate study. I remember being surprised by how sharp his mind was and how thoughtful a person he was to have paid such close attention to those whom he taught. I am grateful for having known him, even in a limited sense, and I express my deepest condolences both to his family and the Dallas Seminary family who will miss Dr. Hoehner. I am sure that more substantive accounts will be forthcoming from Hoehner’s colleagues of the great legacy that he has left behind.

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You will notice, this blog’s title/subtitle has changed from Jesus and Empire: A Postcolonial Perspective to Jesus and Empire: An Imperial-Critical Perspective. This shift has been one I have pondered in my mind for several months. It was born out of a conversation that I had with Professor Francisco Lozada, Jr. at Brite Divinity School as well as an ongoing personal conversation with my good friend Dallas Gingles.

In what follows I will articulate, albeit in brief, the rationale for my shift. Firstly, the term “postcolonial” despite the works of Stephen Moore, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Fernando Segovia, and others, continues to be misunderstood even in the academic community. This is the case for two primary reasons, I think: (a) the prefixed “post-” continues to be understood as a temporal indicator of some sort to the average person unfamiliar with the highly nuanced discussion and (b) it becomes more difficult to communicate the nature of the type of ideological criticism being employed on the biblical texts when the prima facie glance most individuals offer in the direction of this criticism is confounded by a seemingly anachronistic category (i.e. imposing 18th/19th/20th century social constructs flowing out of British colonialism [and then American and other colonial programs] upon the ancient documents whose Sitz im Leben knew not such a robust construct [or did it?]). The former concern tends, in my estimation, to be a distraction. What postcolonial biblical criticism is doing often is confused by others thereby detracting from their perception of the analytic tools, methodologies, and goals of this type of biblical criticism which thereby invalidates, at the outset for many of them, any conclusions that such criticism can offer. The second point, in my view, also sidetracks the value of the criticism. Most (if not all) well known postcolonial biblical critical practitioners perceive and sufficiently nuance the sense in which they read the texts as “colonial scripts.” Thus, the anachronistic charge, frankly, is one made by individuals who neither sufficiently understand or possibly have not thoroughly read the distinctions made by postcolonial biblical critics. Ancillary to this point, is the personal issue. That is to say, part of what is occurring in this method of biblical criticism is the elevation of the reader and the reader’s context, that is, pushing the reader forward into view in the hermeneutical process. Thus, for individuals such as myself, I was born in America, a neo-colonial empire. For that reason, I cannot write or interpret from the same international and sometimes formerly colonized perspectives that other critical postcolonial scholars do (e.g. Stephen Moore, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Fernando Segovia). Furthermore, I have two more strikes against me, namely, I am white (albeit part American Indian) and a male. Therefore, in some sense, in the current discussion, simply by my social location, I am the colonizer as it were. Despite the fact that I have, through critical realization, noted my location, categorically rejected the oppressive role that has often characterized those traits, as much as consciously possible and desire to put forth critical research in this area that I find most fruitful reading through decentered, imperial-critical eyes.

As I stated above, I want to be clear, the terminology of “imperial-critical” was suggested by Professor Lozada and after having pondered his mention of the term and why, I feel that in locating concretely my methodological approach it is best to describe my interests and my eyes as imperial-critical lenses. My rationale are: (1) this term avoids dealing with the two above problems with the term postcolonial, (2) this term is neutral in so far as my being a mixed race American (but mostly caucasian-looking) to some may disqualify my voice from speaking in or as a “colonial/postcolonial” voice. This new terminology, empowers those who have been born and raised in the greatest imperial machine on the planet (for the moment) to critically engage the imperial presuppositions, categories, syntax, empire-speak, ideology, and socio-political reality from the inside. As Neo in the Matrix awakened to note that reality, as such, has been a construct of the imperial machine, so also imperial-critical hermeneutics offers the place in which those riddled with empire, but cognisant of its devices and evils, may come to read the text through these lenses. Even though Neo at one point took part in the machine and constructed reality according to the machine, was he disqualified from identifying the evils of the machine to his and other ethnic/socio-cultural individuals? To indeed, re-imagine the first century environment, noting that the biblical texts, albeit not existing in a Western imperial milieu, but nevertheless were written in a period and by a people deeply and pervasively affected by various forces within the imperial environment. Now, I still contend that what has arrived through postcolonial biblical criticism offers unique tools, that must continue to be used (i.e. mockery, mimicry, ambivalence, etc). Therefore, in a real sense the notion of “colonial/postcolonial” is the same in imperial-critical lingo, albeit slightly more nuanced, in terms of the condition of reality. That is to say, there are socio-political forces at work within, upon, over, under (to appear partially Lutheran), and around the religious concerns of the texts and vice versa. Moreover, there are Roman imperial oppressive forces engaged with Jewish elite oppressive forces and several categories of marginalized individuals within the text, a viewpoint, in my estimation, that the text is written from/to. The foundational concern in imperial-critical studies (if I can call it that), the sine qua non is empire and its devices. Thus, the imperial concern is the fundmental modality through which this lens peers. In my thought, this invites other criticisms, to stand on equal footing, with this criticism (e.g. womanist, feminist, LGBTQ, etc.).

In sum, imperial-critical best describes the mode through which my own situation and critical sensibilities are best described. At least for now. And therefore, will be the term or auspices under which my expressions here will be located. (Fortunately, I’m not baptist or this change may well have gotten lost in committee 😉

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