Blows against the Empire: A Theology of America

Published online 6 September 2007.

This is a book review of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s America, Amerikkka, a book by a “Professor of Feminist Theology” which offers a theological take on American history as well as a recommendation for a “liberation theology” in the American context.

Book review: Ruether, Rosemary Radford.  America, Amerikkka: Elect Nation and Imperial Violence.  London: Equinox, 2007.

One of the most curious things about writing essays is that one may “plan out” an argumentative text, with an introduction stating the main thesis, a body elaborating upon the text’s main points, and a conclusion, yet the whole journey of writing out the introduction and body can make the conclusion into something rather unexpected and different from what it was thought to be when the introduction was written.

This, indeed, appears to have happened with Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book America, Amerikkka.  This book starts out as a meditation upon the “double identity of America,” the one (American) identity being the identity of “democracy and freedom,” and the other identity being the “evil twin that is concealed behind this rhetoric of positive national values and beliefs” (1).  The second spelling of “Amerikkka,” of course, was a pejorative term for imperial American used in the 1960s.  So this book starts from the premise of two Americas, one good, one bad, thus the title.  What it ends with is a meditation on the future, one that is productive but that does not necessarily follow from the rest of the book.

The content of the book is itself largely a meditation upon American history.  Throughout American history, as Ruether shows in chapters 1 through 6, America itself has been governed by this “evil twin”: the ideology of American life presumed (and presumes) that America is a nation of God’s Elect, and that in this role it can do no wrong.  Ruether elaborates:

The United States was thus founded on a basic contradiction.  Although claiming to be based on a universal “rights of man,” the founders held an implicit and often explicit assumption that these rights were the peculiar legacy of Anglo-Saxon Protestant (males).  (41)

Ruether’s book then proceeds to detail the history of this (theological) presumption, from John Winthrop’s notion of a “city on a hill” to the neoconservative ideologies of global empire.  In each case, we are told of what is done to the excluded others (from the native peoples of the Americas to the imported African populations to the slaughtered Filipinos and Cubans of the Spanish-American War to the suspected “Communists” and “terrorists” of our era).  That, in a nutshell, is the content of chapters one through six.  The history written in these chapters appears as an especially well-organized (and easy to read) version of the histories written by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, or William Blum.  It will enlighten people who were not properly taught this material in high school or college.

Chapter 7 shifts focus, suggesting that a number of famous historical figures (from Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson to Martin Luther King Jr.) established an American “protest tradition” in contrast to the tradition of America’s “evil twin.”  This term “protest tradition” concerns me a bit: the image I get is that of protesters standing by the sidelines while the imperialists notch up triumphs and celebrate them in victory parades.  Chapter 8, even more radically, proposes an alternate theology to the one said to predominate throughout American history.

Now, the word “theology” as used in America, Amerikkka does not carry with it many of the “merely religious” connotations it might otherwise have.  Ruether wishes to get at the cores of metaphysical belief beneath our ideologies.

At the beginning of this book, as I said, is this premise of the two Americas, the one of democracy and freedom and the other of the “evil twin.”  The great bulk of this book is taken up with a lengthy description of the actions of this “evil twin,” for it is the main actor of US history in its relation to the “other.”  The US throughout its history has been an imperial nation, some groups of Europeans conquering a continent and wiping out its native peoples while (to a certain extent) importing Africans to work as slaves on the conquered land.  Reuther explains the US “theology,” through which (white, male, Protestant) Americans regarded themselves as God’s Elect, through a comparison with the 18th-century British, French, and Spanish “theologies” of similar character.

As imperial pretexts dried up (the end of the western frontier, the end of the Cold War), the ruling elites created new imperial contexts for conquest and new enemies to fight.  After the closing of the frontier, for instance, there was the Spanish-American war (and the subsequent slaughter in the Philippines), and after the Cold War there was the Gulf War, which led in turn to the Project for a New American Century and its visions of war throughout the world.

This version of history, although something of a gloss on writing done earlier by William Blum (who Ruether cites) or Noam Chomsky (which she doesn’t), makes a great antidote to much of American political thinking, which still abides by the proposition that “America can do no wrong” in foreign affairs.  Even more common is the presupposition that “America is the only country that matters.”  This book provides an antidote to that idea as well.

Chapters 7 and 8, however, deal with the other vision of America.  Chapter 7, “Alternative Visions of America,” deals with the “protest tradition,” of the history of liberation movements in America. This tradition was quite effective in achieving social change in the US during the 1960s and 1970s.  Chapter 8 outlines a vision of a “US Theology of Liberation.”  The beginning of Chapter 8 appears as a desire to undo the domination represented in Ruether’s depictions of American history:

In 1977, Sister Marie Augusta Neal wrote a short book called A Socio-Theology of Letting Go.  This book made a strong impression on me since it seemed to articulate the other side of a liberation theology, the side of a liberation theology addressed to those who are holding oppressive power over others.  For those who are oppressed to be liberated, those who hold oppressive power must “let go” (or must be made to let go), must relax their grip on domination so others can go free.  Ultimately a transformation of both sides must take place so there is no more poor and rich, oppressed and oppressors, elect and non-elect, privileged and nonprivileged, but a new society where all members enjoy dignity and access to the basic means of life. (250)

Now, this makes sense as the foundation for Ruether’s statement of liberation theology.  It also makes sense of the previous chapters, in which a theology or a number of theologies (“American exceptionalism” might encompass all of them) served as pretexts for (white, male, Protestant, American) domination.  But then a different element enters Ruether’s thinking:

A theology of liberation and letting go today must be understood as a theology of ecojustice, just relations between humans to each other and between humans and the earth. (251)

Now, justice between people was understandably a part of the protest tradition of American democracy.  But “just relations… between humans and the earth” is a curious notion.  How is the Earth an object of “justice”?  I do not want to be nitpicking here: Ruether is using “ecojustice” as a figure of speech for ecological sustainability.  But ecological sustainability is not a form of justice, but rather a form of stability.  There can be ecological sustainability without justice: there were traditional societies that have survived, sustainably, for centuries without being just.  There can be justice, moreover, even toward the things of nature, without sustainability: what characterizes ecological sustainability is not the just respect we might devote to the things of this Earth (such as we might have in creating wildlife preserves), but whether our practices in living in our natural habitats can be maintained for thousands of years without causing ecological crisis.

It is in this sense of ecological sustainability that Ruether’s last chapter introduces something new to America, Amerikkka.  For there are things in the recommendations of Chapter 8 that readers would expect to be in an “American liberation theology” –- a discussion about “dismantling the theology of American empire,” a discussion of “re-imagining America’s place in the world community,” a discussion of “poverty” – these are all familiar subjects from the earlier parts of the book.  Ruether’s recommendation of reduced military budgets is quite pertinent to this history.  Ruether’s discussion of environmental sustainability, however, introduces a qualitatively new challenge.

What has happened, as Ruether’s history has progressed, is that, as capitalism has progressed and as capitalist discipline has “domesticated” people and the land, the nature of (in Sister Mary Augusta Neal’s words) “oppression” has changed.  What are the main differences between “oppression” then and “oppression” today?  One difference is that, in the United States today’s “oppressed” people have won a modicum of rights and have been allowed participation in a consumer society.  These things aren’t experienced as “oppression.”  (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno thought people were oppressed by consumerism, but they don’t share the consumer’s point of view.)

Meanwhile, however, the international gap between rich and poor has widened, slavery continues to occur, and the world as a whole stands the risk of being urbanized into life in the world’s growing slums.  But this is an international phenomenon.  Ruether’s book is an occasion for a specifically American soul-searching.

Ruether’s ability to make a radical renewal (265) will be limited by her ability to persuade large numbers of people of the rightness of her liberation theology.  I doubt that everyone who reads this book will be persuaded of everything she says.  Sometimes she “skims over” some of the important historical points she makes.  An example:

Bush, commanding the vast weaponry of the largest military power on earth, has wreaked far more death and destruction in the last four years than Osama bin Laden in his mountain hideout.  Measured by sheer levels of killing, maiming, and destruction of the means of daily life, Bush has done far more evil than Osama bin Laden.  (261)

Granted, readers should have been prepared to read sentences like these by the history that preceded them.  But some of them will still want to understand in great detail why Ruether isn’t just “siding with the terrorists” with a statement like this.  This could have been a bigger, more detailed book.

Some will dismiss America, Amerikkka as propaganda for the idea that “God is a liberal” or that “God is a socialist.”  America, Amerikkka is a critique of an important ideology which openly proposes its own counter-ideology.  Needless to say, I am far more sympathetic to Ruether’s project than to “American exceptionalism,” given that the former is based on a genuine reckoning with the facts and that the latter is based on ignorance.  It’s probably quite a leap, however, for its author to propose “ecological sustainability” after having us read a history of US imperialism.  Reading another, more overarching history of the capitalist system as a whole (such as Kees van der Pijl’s Transnational Classes and International Relations) would assist readers of America, Amerikkka in understanding the bigger picture.


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