Interrupting the Spirituality of Empire

 Jeffrey Metcalfe

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.[1]

– Le Déclin de lEmpire 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.[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5] 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).[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] 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).[11]

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.”[12] Said differently, community posits a positive and mutual intentionality. Whereas a society can be composed through tacit consent, community must be actively embodied. [13] 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.”[14]

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.”[15] 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.”[16] 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.”[17]

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,[18] 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,”[19] a realization that Macmurray calls communion.[20] 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.[21]

However, Macmurray assumes that the dialectic of misrecognition that forms self-consciousness is a passive phenomenon, one that still has its basis in fear.[22] 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,”[23] 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.”[24]

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,”[25] 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.”[26]

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.


[1] Le Déclin de lEmpire Américain, dvd, directed by Denys Arcand (Montreal: Les Films Séville, 2009).

[2] Edmund Pries, “Taxpayers vs. citizens,” Editorial, Toronto Star, September 15, 2011.

[3] Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God: When Strangers Call us Home (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), 39.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid., 129.

[10] John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1961), 134.

[11] Ibid., 133.

[12] Ibid., 158.

[13] Ibid., 160.

[14] Ibid., 161.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 158.

[18] Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God, 54.

[19] John Macmurray, Persons in Relation, 158.

[20] Ibid., 162.

[21] Ibid., 160.

[22] Ibid., 161.

[23] Mary Jo Leddy, The Other Face of God, 54.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Le Déclin de lEmpire Américain.

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2 thoughts on “Interrupting the Spirituality of Empire

  1. First of all, thank-you for an insightful essay. The recuperation or (re)building of social responsibility, particularly as you have chronicled through the small human victories of openness towards others and the breaking down of stereotypes, and the attention to the kinds of political imaginary which shape us (i.e. the citizen as opposed to the taxpayer) are important themes, and I think you have raised them with a great deal of wisdom and care. The predominant rhetoric of a politics of fear is indeed a crippling one as it forces not only individuals but whole communities into self-destructive strait-jackets. Some sort of politics of encounter or interrupted spirituality, operating with distinctive logics of conflict and identity, is surely necessary if we are to build and sustain vibrant and life-giving communities and engage in a political discourse that is not merely a series of shrill attack campaigns.

    Yet this work, as you allude, is a dialectical one which leaves none of us untroubled, in particular those of us who have long been the beneficiaries of historic (and ongoing) campaigns of oppression and exploitation. As we struggle to emerge from the binds of this history, to break free into consciousness, we are no doubt to be plagued for some time by a kind of double voice. On the one hand we may mourn the loss of a strong sense of citizenry and the breakdown of community in the face of rampant individualism, while at the same time berating the forces of Empire. Civilization, however, may be read as a face of Empire. Empires, past and present, have always justified their efforts of conquest as civilizing enterprises. That this has never been the unambiguous reality does not change the fact that our discourses about civility, polis and all, are built on bloody backs and forged in the chains of slavery. Duty towards society, as you know, has been a rallying cry for programs of genocide on more than one occasion. Of course you may object that the kind of society you envision, and the responsibilities entailed therein, are distinct and of a different nature and orientation than the ones I am referencing here, even though bourne out of those very societies. Indeed I would wholly agree that the dialectical moment where misrecognition is corrected could arise through friendship, but on this basis I must object to your casting of the debate between consumptive desire and social responsibility.

    Now, in the Arcand quote, you made reference to appetites which has connotations quite different from that of desire. Yet the question of desire is crucial here, not least because what you refer to as ‘imperial subjectivity’ leaves it so ill-formed. What I would like to push at here is the notion that the malaise of modernity is a case of excessive individualism and materialism. Nothing could be further from the truth. A society that accepts money as the primary, if not the only, mediator between persons and between persons and the physical world is a society that disavows its own materiality. A society wherein, along with money or capital as the prime economic mediator, the nation-state is set forth as the guarantor of individual rights is a society with a rudimentary, almost non-existent, process of individuation. The subject of an empire is a taxpayer and not necessarily a citizen. Her becoming-citizen is, ostensibly, a process of increased agency and therefore responsibility. It is also a process of sensuous exploration, wherein we become more conscious of our physical and human environment. The question here is, at one level, whether the city or polis names for us today an appropriate or helpful geographical aggregate to ground these explorations. Empire certainly is not.

    As you have repeatedly stated, though, we are heirs to the barbaric civility of imperialism, not only in its American style but its British and European predecessors and counterparts. We are imperial subjects in the very servile sense of the word. If that civilization is decaying, so be it. Let us not be the reactionaries who long for the glory of the ancien regime. If it was our privilege, it was never our freedom. In an Empire there are subjects, but they are passive bent to the will of an emperor and his forces. In a nation-state there are individuals, but they are individuated only ideologically, politically and economically they are grouped into subsets of class and profiled variously through lenses of race,gender, religion, or custom.

    What I mean to suggest is that the civilization you refer to has subjected many people to long programme of starvation. Not only physical hunger, though that has often played a part, but also to a starvation of the mind and the senses through various agendas of cultural and religious extermination as a part of a deprivation of political will and economic well-being. Now we are hungry. Being ill-trained and malnourished we are bound to make some bad decisions, but the one thing we know is that we must not allow the hunger and starvation to continue. We have been strangers to our own desires, alienated not only from our production but from our consumption as well. Civilization is not fragmenting, it has always been thus and we are now beginning to see it. The vision is frightening, but it is better than blindness, and in the midst of the fear there are moments of grace as our perceptions deepen through encounter and experience.

  2. No, thank you for encouraging me to nuance my position! This conversation is preciously the encounter with an other I was trying to describe!

    The thrust of the article is how a spirituality based in a dialectical encounter with the other can interrupt the spirituality of empire. I would nuance this a little more to say that imperial spirituality is, as you suggest, not materialistic: it chases the evanescent. To be a true materialist, one must be able to recognize the concrete relations that bring one’s self, others, and the objects of one’s world into existence. Imperial spirituality is unable to recognize those concrete relations. In Hegelian terms, it is does not move from appearance to understanding, or from consciousness to self-consciousness. The result is a person who takes up a perspective on his situation in a way that gives priority to his own being, while disavowing that his being is both predicated upon and sustained by those relations.

    This is why leftists have to be particularly weary of the ways in which they set up their critiques of empire. An expression of giving priority to one’s own being can be a critique of empire: a critique that assumes itself as the most important and its problem as the most significant, which reproduces the logic of empire that it is attempting to overcome. No conceptualization can secure itself from this danger, neither in our spirituality, nor in our theory. Only an encounter with others can reveal to us how the boundaries of the empire have been drawn within ourselves.

    Here, for good or for ill, I reveal my latent Augustinianism. Like St. Augustine, I do not believe that dividing the world into firm categories of good and evil is ultimately helpful, even in the case of empire: this is the Manichean heresy. Celebrating the fall of the empire mistakes the true object of hope as much as celebrating its triumphs: in both cases the destiny of empire determines the hope of humanity. This is not to disavow that relations formed within empire are seriously problematic. Indeed, my critique of “imperial spirituality” (whether successful or not) was an attempt to locate how and where those problems occurred.

    My case in point is your invocation of duty (towards the polis or civilization) as the rallying point for programs of genocide. I am assuming that you are drawing on Arendt’s work on duty and its relation to Eichmann’s involvement in the Holocaust. For Arendt, duty in this situation has a precise meaning connected to the Kantian categorical imperative. Eichmann himself claimed to be following Kant’s categorical imperative while helping to enable Hitler’s genocidal plans. He conceived of duty as binding him to obedience to the sovereign and to a particular embodiment of German civilization. Falling into the Manichean heresy, one might say he falsely divided up the world between an unquestionable good (Hitler and Germany) and the bad (those Hitler and Germany excluded) and saw his duty and his hope in furthering the good resulting in the elimination of the bad.

    Notice though, both in the case of my essay, and in Arcand’s quote, duty is never invoked but responsibility is. It makes all the difference. Arendt posits something similar in her work, deconstructing duty, while advocating for judgment and responsibility. As citizens we have a responsibility for the civilization we are in, its laws and its identity which gave us our agency, regardless of whether we discern its laws or its identity to be unjust. This responsibility is lived out most authentically when we take up those laws and that identity into a difficult process of judgment and renegotiation. To despair of civilization is to refuse negotiation: it is to tie one’s hope to the empire by falling into a Manichean division between good and evil. Yet, as Arendt understood, the boundaries of evil are always more subtly and banally drawn.

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