“When people become more concerned with the gratification of their own appetites than with their responsibilities to society, the days of that civilization are numbered.”
– Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain, Denys Arcand (1986)
In 2011, one only needs to listen to the headlines – be they international, national, provincial, or municipal – to hear the signs of imperial decay, as the signifiers that once held their identity in the polis, such as citizen, have come to be usurped by the ubiquitous taxpayer. The difference between the two is striking. Whereas the signifier citizen contains within it an understanding of the responsibilities that one’s belonging to a polis entails, a taxpayer assumes no such responsibility. A taxpayer is a consumer, one who pays a fee and expects a service in return. Or, perhaps as Arcand realized several decades earlier, a taxpayer is more consumed with her own appetites, a citizen with her obligations to others.
As Christians, we must be careful not to depict this dichotomy as an easy choice of holding ourselves as citizens instead of taxpayers. It would be comforting to understand being labeled as taxpayers as an alien imposition by those political elites and ideologies we often set ourselves against. Rather, we must take up our situation by recognizing how our own spirituality is often complicit in the ways of empire that we purport to reject.
This is precisely what Marry Jo Leddy, the founder of Romero House, and the 20th century philosopher John Macmurray can aid us in doing. For when brought into conversation, Marry Jo Leddy and John Macmurray help to identify the spirituality of empire, offering an alternative spirituality of communion founded in an encounter with the other. Leddy argues that by virtue of being formed within the borders of the American Empire, the spirituality of North American Christians takes on the empire’s fixed boundaries of identity. In turn, Macmurray identifies these boundaries as destroying the possibility for real community. By way of conclusion, I will show how Leddy’s own encounter with another reveals the logic of a spirituality that can interrupt the boundaries of empire.
In her book The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls us Home, Leddy claims that the defining characteristic of empire is the way in which empire places one’s identity at the centre of the world: “All eyes are on America, for as America goes, so goes the world.” As subjectivity is formed within the boundaries of the empire, this imperial gaze is interiorized, both reflecting and producing a sense of the self that assumes the centrality and priority of its own being. “To put it simply, it is easier to be self-centered when you live in the Centre of the World; it is easier to think of the rest of the world as revolving around your needs and desires when you live in a place that the rest of the world is watching.”
Spirituality lived through such a subjectivity becomes equally self-centered. Leddy calls this “an imperial spirituality [which] will tend to assume that my attitude to other people is shaped by my needs and desires, by my generosity and self interest.” Such a spirituality effects both the advocates and critiques of empire, as both tend to assume their own people are responsible for either all that is good in the world (democracy and human rights) or all that is bad (the satanic mills of liberal capitalism). Likewise, “to live in the church in North America is to assume that our critique of the church is the most important, that our problems are the most significant problems in the universal church.”
As Leddy goes on to say, the insidious nature of this sense of self and its ensuing spirituality is the way in which it’s self-consciousness fails to recognize both its contingency and hegemony in its concrete relations with others. Leddy herself comes to this realization when Deequa, a Somali member of the Romero community, is given a new prostatic leg that neither the medical staff nor manufacturers had thought to match with her dark skin colour. They were unable to realize the way in which constructing the leg to be white was an assumption about what the default colour of a person was, thus, demonstrating their failure to recognize the particularity of the black woman they were attempting to help. After all, as Leddy conjectures, “who wouldn’t want a white leg? White was normal. White was the best. I realized that the color of her leg was Imperial White.”
This realization – an expansion of self-consciousness – only occurred to Leddy through her proximity to the other. By witnessing the misrecognition Deequa encountered through receiving a white leg, Leddy came to understand how even those trying to help the other (including herself) are implicated in the empire’s exclusion of the other. In other words, the borders and boundaries that constitute imperial identity only revealed themselves in the presence of the other that they exclude. By encountering Deequa, Leddy encountered the way her own peoples’ sense of self excluded Deequa. Leddy argues that this exclusion was not coincidental to empire, but constitutive of it; an empire is brought into being through boundaries that are created for the purpose of exclusion.
As John Macmurray argues, such boundaries are self-defeating, for an identity that is based upon the exclusion of the other destroys the possibility of community. For Macmurray, one of the mistakes of modern philosophy and sociology was the way it failed to separate the concepts of community and society. In his understanding, the concept of society in the western tradition was based upon a negative condition: a fear of the other. This fear causes individuals to submit themselves to a shared law enforced by the power of the sovereign (whether that sovereign is Hobbes’ leviathan, or Rousseau’s general will).
However community, Macmurray argues, cannot be sustained by this negative concept of society, for community has positive conditions. “The structure of a community is the nexus or network of the active relations of friendship between all possible pairs of its members.” Said differently, community posits a positive and mutual intentionality. Whereas a society can be composed through tacit consent, community must be actively embodied.  For one’s membership in a community to have substance it must be taken up. “Thus the problem of community is the problem of overcoming fear and subordinating the negative to the positive in the motivation of persons in relation.”
This implies that insofar as the conditions of a group’s consciousness remain negative, community will be impossible. For example, if the relation between two friends conceives of itself as a relation set against others, “its motivation in relation to others is negative; the two friends must defend themselves against the intrusion of the rest.” Yet if they mount such a defense, whether existentially, physically, or both, their friendship ceases to be defined by their positive capacity, by what their friendship is for, emptying the bonds of friendship of actual substance. The same holds true for a community. As soon as it begins to define itself primarily in terms of what it is against, its substantial relations begin to decay, a process that if left unchecked, would lead to the eventual collapse of the community. “To be fully positive, therefore, the relation must be in principal inclusive, and without limits.” That is to say, true positive identity whether of the person or of the community exists when for each self, “it is the other who is important, not himself. The other is the centre of value.”
Yet, as Leddy demonstrated, imperial identity defines itself preciously by what it is against. America has increasingly become the negation of Nazis, communists, and terrorists, which if Macmurray’s argument holds, suggests that America has increasingly become in-of-itself nothing. If it proceeds in this fashion it will inevitably collapse. Similarly, it follows that a spirituality that defines itself against the existence of others, destroys the possibility of the church. For while church structures might constitute Macmurray’s definition of a society, this does not signify that they function as a community of faith. Indeed, a community of faith will be known by the capacity of its members to “realizes [themselves] in and through the other,” a realization that Macmurray calls communion. Imperial spirituality as depicted by Leddy thus undermines the existence of communion.
Clearly, when they are brought into conversation, Leddy and Macmurray help to identify the spirituality of empire. Leddy shows us how an imperial spirituality attempts to secure itself through the exclusion of others and Macmurray illustrates how this destroys the possibility of communion. Nevertheless, the question remains, how are we to move beyond a spirituality of the empire towards a spirituality that fosters communion? Like the dichotomy between citizen and taxpayer, an imperial spirituality is not something we can simply choose to have or reject; it is the result of a subjective formation within the empire. This is precisely how it is able to distort acts as benevolent as creating a new prostatic leg for a victim of war.
The answer lies already in Leddy’s encounter with Deequa; not in the particular lesson that Leddy learned, but the very logic of the encounter itself. As we saw, it was only proximity to the other that revealed to Leddy how the boundaries of her own people were subtly drawn around race. Being in the presence of the other calls us to an awareness of the misrecognitions inherent to our subjectivity, of how our own spirituality sets up exclusive borders, and thereby, it expands our self-consciousness in a way that gives the opportunity to transcend those borders. Macmurray see this as a negative aspect of the self’s relation to the other, a latent possibility, but one that must always be subordinated to the positive condition of intentionality.
However, Macmurray assumes that the dialectic of misrecognition that forms self-consciousness is a passive phenomenon, one that still has its basis in fear. While this may be true with some versions of German Idealism, as Leddy’s encounter with Deequa demonstrates, the dialectical moment where misrecognition is corrected does not have to be based in fear; it can also be based in friendship. It was only through Leddy’s concern for the other, her wish to see a member of her community relieved of her pain, which led to her realization. It was because of the care Leddy held for Deequa that Leddy felt Deequa’s exclusion in her own person, calling Leddy to a new awareness of herself. In order to have misrecognition corrected then, one must be open and in proximity to the other, an openness and proximity that entails a positive intentionality. As Leddy suggests, such a stance can help us “find the true center, the new center of our lives,” which is neither in one’s self, nor the reified other, but in the gap or border that lies in between. It is a spirituality that functions by “allowing our lives to be thrown off center and embracing the disorientation that this implies.”
For those whose subjectivity was formed in the heart of the empire, this is a gospel of grace, for the other opens up the possibility that the false sense of the priority of our own being can be interrupted. We can be saved from ourselves, in a way we cannot accomplish by ourselves, for “the stranger can summon us to leave behind our imperial selves, our imperial lives,” and our imperial spiritualties. And, to amend Denys Arcand’s phrase: In a fragmenting civilization where an increasing amount of people have “become more concerned with the gratification of their own appetites than with their responsibilities to society,” such a spirituality is evermore necessary, for “the days of that civilization are numbered.”
Jeffrey Metcalfe is a postulant for ordination in the Diocese of Quebec, and is presently pursuing a master of divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.
 Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain, dvd, directed by Denys Arcand (Montreal: Les Films Séville, 2009).
 Edmund Pries, “Taxpayers vs. citizens,” Editorial, Toronto Star, September 15, 2011.
 Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God: When Strangers Call us Home (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 39.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 129.
 John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1961), 134.
 Ibid., 133.
 Ibid., 158.
 Ibid., 160.
 Ibid., 161.
 Ibid., 159.
 Ibid., 158.
 Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God, 54.
 John Macmurray, Persons in Relation, 158.
 Ibid., 162.
 Ibid., 160.
 Ibid., 161.
 Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God, 54.
 Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain.