Antonio GONZALES. God's Reign and the End of Empires. Convivium Press: Miami, 2012. Series: Kyrios: Translated from Spanish by Joseph V. Owens, SJ. Review by Anthony M. STEVENS-ARROYO, Brooklyn College, CUNY, Brooklyn, NY 11210

This is a splendid book: challenging to read, insightful for its scriptural interpretations, inspiring in review of history and deft in the use of sociological and economic sources.  Translated from Spanish, it represents a new and impressive publishing series that represents in translation the often neglected intellectual production from the world’s large Spanish-speaking Catholicism.

            The book consists of five extensive and well-planned chapters book-ended by an introduction and two concluding chapters sketching future directions.  The author, a Spaniard with teaching experiences in Jesuit universities in Spain andLatin America, is now a member of the Mennonite community. His theology, however, is clearly based on the liberation themes flowing from Catholic Latin America. 

            The first chapter argues for the need of “social theology,” a term which is an uncomplicated, common-sense definition of how a vital theology shapes everyday praxis.  The book was written years before the election of Pope Francis, but reflects the approach to theology that was forced underground for Catholicism when not actually persecuted by Francis’ immediate predecessors.  I would not consider González to have created a “new” theology, since this school of theological reflection has been active since the aftermath of the Vatican II Council. However, with the ascent of the new pope, there is strong likelihood of a gain in currency for this cultivated analysis of scriptural and historical review of theological principles as applied to the contemporary world.

            González addresses the issue of globalization, which he represents as a largely negative force allied with Neo-Liberalism that produces poverty, racism and ecological disasters (pgs. 26ff).  Capitalism comes under his fire, but he treats it as the existing source of structural social inequality rather than as empty foil of a Marxian agenda.  In other words, you need not be an advocate for Liberation Theology to benefit from González’s critique of the glaring economic injustice at work today.   Much as Pope Francis’ approach to these issues, the perspective is pastoral rather than politicizing.  

            González’s critique is based on three well-developed conceptual analogies.  First is his reading of the religion of Ancient Israel.  One of his few neologisms is the notion of “Adamic” logic (pgs. 64ff).  Referencing the account of expulsion from the Garden of Eden as found in the Book of Genesis, he dissects the notion that human effort is responsible for rewards or punishments.  He rejects this notion as inimical to authentic religion.   He argues that salvation consists in reversing the logic behind Adam’s sin.  Instead, true faith offers service to the needy, but without expectation of reward.  

            González carries his analysis through the development of the religion of Ancient Israel.  The passage about the erection of the Tower of Babel, becomes a tale that exposes the flaws of Adamic logic which presumes that human action alone suffices to build a world order.  In contrast with the structures of Babel for the world (pgs. 77-80) is the faith of Abraham’s descendants. The religion of Israel is presented as a model faith community:  it becomes an alternative society based on equality, rather than on the crushing norms of ancient imperialism from Babylon and Egypt.  In making his case, González suggests that taxation in ancient Israel was designed to redistribute wealth with the direct purpose of eliminating poverty among widows and orphans. Similarly, the tradition of the year of jubilee functioned to cancel debt and thus remove a principal cause of enduring social inequality (pgs. 89-91).

            The author carries this exposé of Adamic logic into the life and ministry of Jesus as the second part of his argument. Familiar episodes like the encounter with the Samaritan woman, the cleansing of the Temple, the discourse over the coin with Caesar’s image, and the like are given a fresh interpretation as examples of the radical call of Jesus to totally reject the premise that good and bad acts cause predictable divine action of reward and punishment.  These are not homiletic points with pious embellishment, but sound exegesis based on contemporary research.  Consider, for instance, how González reinterprets the admonition in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:38-42) to go two miles when you are obliged to only one.  The author points to the Roman army’s practice of obliging the conquered local populace to carry military equipment for one mile and only one mile.  By stating that believers should volunteer for two miles, the Roman occupiers would be put in the uncomfortable situation of being forced “to choose between violating their own norms (which expressly prohibit obliging subjugated peoples to walk more than one mile) and beseeching the people not to help them.” González   concludes: “with these counsels, Jesus is recommending ways by which the oppressed people can take the initiative and boldly unmask the oppression” (pg. 119).

            According to González, early Christianity faithfully followed the purity of Jesus’ message.  But in the fourth century, recognition as official state religion under Emperor Constantine distorted such faith loyalties.  Instead, motivated by what González labels on page 274, “Constantinianism,” the Christian Church allowed itself to function as a continuation of the Roman Empire.  In this third segment of his argument, González states that Adamic logic was reintroduced into Christian states after the fourth century CE which were forced into compromises of spiritual values in order to maintain secular power.  Among other effects, this rendered impracticable the communalistic norm of sharing material goods, “from each according to ability: to each according to need” (pgs. 170-189). 

            Likewise lost under Constantinianism was the rigorous anti-imperialism of Jesus who had preached non-violence in resistance to domination.  Developing a historical view of the building blocks of society in the Roman world (Chapter 5), González builds a case that Christianity prospered as an ethic within households (oikumene, whence eucumene).  He produces pieces of evidence that within Christian households, there was an extraordinary degree of gender and class equality.  His analysis anticipates the ultimate destination of his argument for a non-state supported, small community Christianity, and for one that does not hide the trappings of empire behind traditional claims to hierarchy.

            Certainly González is not the first to argue that the establishment of Christianity as the official state religion by Emperor Constantine rendered virtually impossible the model of early Christianity that functioned as an alternate society that protested unjust social norms by choosing to reject worldly values.  However, his analysis does not claim that the church was thoroughly vitiated after accepting the consequences of Constantine’s elevation in status.  Yes, an institutional and hierarchical church was structurally different from early Christianity.  It could no longer be an “alternative” since it had become the norm.  Rather than simply condemn this historical direction of Christianity, González suggests that loss of such status does not constitute defeat for Christianity, but the opportunity for its restoration.

            He seeks nuance and historical perspective to identify how evangelical authenticity can be sustained within the institution, even if it is flawed.  González writes that responsibility for maintaining Christianity’s absolutes regarding both wealth and non-violence passed to religious orders, who translated the general norms among all of the earliest Christians into a voluntary acceptance of the “evangelical counsels” among the few.  González also suggests that the Reformation and Protestantism were laudable historical efforts to return to the purity of early Christianity.  These would fail, for the most part, because they inevitably fell into the same trap of entanglement with state interests.  Notable exceptions were free churches like the Mennonite that rejected official state support. 

            Chapters 7 and 8 apply this scriptural exegesis and historical analysis to the contemporary world.  I believe that this treatment is less convincing than the earlier parts of the book. González, for instance, is forced to proffer Latin American Charismatic Pentecostalism as possessor of contemporary purity that imitates what was found in early Christianity.   In the abstract, perhaps, such a claim might be made; but in actuality, Latin American evangelicals have been seduced by state alliances such as those that befell Catholicism, witness the bloody regime of convert Rios Mont in Guatemala.

            González searches for a contemporary economic and social equivalent of the small ecclesial communities he posits as the most faithful examples of authentic religion.  He finds his models in micro-enterprise, popular culture’s disgust with corporate bigness and a preference for ecologically sound products such as organic foods and renewable energy.  It is one thing, however, to describe these trends as examples of how faith-filled authenticity finds echo in contemporary society and another to predict that they will topple existing Neo-Liberal and corporate structures.

            In sum, González argues most convincingly about the dystopia of Christianity’s centuries’ long entanglement with imperial power, now present in corporate globalization.  His description of a utopia going forward, however, is not as persuasive.  Still, he makes the case for the title of the book: God’s Reign: the End of Empires, and that alone makes this a worthwhile read for study of the historical interaction of faith, economy and empire.

            The layout of the book is non-conventional: page numbers in the middle of the page on the margins, black introductory pages with titles in a white-colored font, and the type of systematic division of themes that might be derived from the “automatic numeration” button on software.   The author is guilty in different chapters of word for word repetition of the same idea.  Take, for instance, how he repeats the same observation on gender equality when describing the scriptural description of Phoebe on pages 175-76 and again on page 201. This sort of thing happens when chapters in a book are based on independently published articles.  More disconcerting is the lack of an index in what should be regarded as an academic book and one likely for class reading lists.  I don’t know how the editors could have gone to press without one!  Also annoying is no entry about the sources for scriptural translations, which depart from common texts to introduce some novel (for me, at least) wording.  Consider Deut. 26:5 that begins here with “A Syrian ready to perish was my father…” rather the more familiar reference to a “wandering Aramean.”   I still don’t know if the novel rendering is based on an English translation of the Bible or a translation of what the author wrote in Spanish.

            This rather long review cannot do justice to a book well worth reading for those who view religion through a social science and historical prism.