Living in the Shadow of Empire: A Theological Reflection in Conversation with Indigenous Experience

[1] In this article, we would like to think of Empire[1] in theological terms, with the hope of providing insight to some pressing modern issues. We will do this in conversation with the experiences of Indigenous Peoples, particularly in North America. This vantage point is revealing and, at the same time, timely, as Canada ends its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process,[2] regarding the Indian Residential Schools (IRS).[3]

[2] A few years ago, I and a few others were approached by a group that had produced Bible-based materials that incorporated tested and promising therapeutic approaches to groups that had experienced extreme trauma, including genocide, mass rape, and war. The group had tried using this material with Indigenous Peoples in Canada and were surprised and concerned that these groups displayed a level of complex, multi-layered, and inter-generational trauma that was beyond anything they had seen before, despite their experience in some of the most inflamed conflicts around the world.

[3] Not surprised, we discussed some of the reasons for this – colonization, the residential schools, and endemic poverty. We also tried to point out some of the dynamics of this ongoing oppression. Key among them is the fact that this trauma is well hidden to all but those who experience it. This dynamic reveals not only the disguised character of intense and pervasive oppression, it reveals the culture-wide habituation of oppressive thought, behavior, and anti-community that are the hallmarks of Empire. As we will discuss, this is more than just over-extensive political or military reach. Empire attacks life at its most vulnerable. Experienced as expansive military and political control, both within and without the center of Empire, it is most itself in the oppression of those it deems weak and, therefore almost inexplicably, a threat to the meaning and power of its entire structure. It is here that theological reflection is most pressing, necessary, and revealing.

Empire Considered in Recent Biblical and Theological Work

[4] There is much that has been written in the past decade regarding Empire. In New Testament studies “Colossians Re-mixed”[4] is particularly relevant. Beyond this, there is a long line of theological thought that was significantly shaped by the work of William Stringfellow. In this vein, we would see the work of Walter Wink and others.

The content and character of this work is in contrast to some of the popular contemporary homiletic treatments of the idea of Empire. Empire has become an over-used cliché for government over-reach and anti-democratic tendencies in both government and financial institutions. Though these references are relevant and sometimes accurate, they fail to engage some of the deeper levels of the exegetical and theological work mentioned above. In that, it not only has the dangers of any cliché, but also can devolve into one more means of political polarization and, thereby, miss the force and danger, at a spiritual and theological level, that is Empire.

[5] The experience of the IRS, as we referred above, provides the forceful point of reference for a contemporary theological conversation around Empire. The IRS is now a well-documented and all but universally acknowledged instance of mass evil, with church complicity and cooperation in a government sponsored program. In light of the TRC revelations,[5] church members must be considered, at times, as having played an animating role in the IRS. It is here that this becomes more than an exercise in theological speculation; it is a matter upon which the reputation and life of the church becomes intimately challenged. The church, if we are reading this right, can be considered, at times, so dangerously enmeshed with Empire that it must be considered an integral part of it in era of the IRS.

The Indian Residential Schools

[6] The Indian Residential Schools began in the early 1800’s, but were not extensive, becoming a major policy initiative in the 1880’s. At this time, church involvement began, with the largest number of schools being under Roman Catholic sponsorship, next Anglicans, after that the United Church, and, finally, Presbyterian and Mennonites with a smaller involvement. By the time they ended in the 1990’s, there had been 82 schools, processing over 180,000 children.

[7] Abuse was rampant in the schools and, as the TRC has shown, in excess of what the litigation results imagined. Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse were widespread. The schools had their own cemeteries, as the death rate often reached 30%. It was by design and effect, as the TRC Final Report[6] shows, an instance of “cultural genocide.”

The churches, for the most part, have publicly apologized for their part in the IRS – sincerely and earnestly. We wait, however, for a deeper understanding of what allowed religious institutions to so seriously depart from their values and precepts. So far, none of the church apologies and statements, however heartfelt and courageous, have revealed the extent and depth of the churches’ involvement in systemic evil.

Systemic Evil

[8] The IRS challenges modern capacities to comprehend evil, especially systemic evil. Chief among those ideas that disable our understanding of systemic evil is the major Western cultural preoccupation with individual autonomy. Evil must be understood as individuals acting together with destructive intent. Analysis of evil seeks a perpetrator or perpetrators. It is hard for people to understand the habituated evil that harbors itself in policy, attitude, and culture.

[9] In recent times, we have developed some capacity to understand the complexity of our biological and behavioral systems. We think of systemic family dysfunction in the case of chemical dependency and other recognized “family” illnesses. Clergy, in particular, have the opportunity to see the way systemic dysfunction works in pastoral work with families, which could help point us towards a more complex understanding of systemic evil in larger systems, like the IRS.

[10] Scripture, in comparison to modern preoccupations with individual autonomy, contains a complex, sophisticated, and nuanced approach to systemic evil – in the Greek Scriptures use of “Principalities and Powers” – the “strongholds” of thought and behavioral patterning that inhabit what, in modern times, we would describe as institutions and ideologies. This can be seen operating with efficiency in what we could now call technocracy. The capacity for this merging of technology, business, government, and culture show new levels of ability to control human behavior, for good and for bad.

[11] There is a sophisticated portrayal of these ideas in the Gospels’ account of Empire, specifically in the behavior of tyrants like the Pharisees, Herod, and Pilate. These accounts display Empire, the operation of the Principalities and Powers as:

  1. Chaotic, undisciplined, and contradictory (as in Herod’s actions with John the Baptist)
  2. Characterized by fear (as Herod, Pilate, and Rome)
  3. Obsessed with power, sex, and wealth
  4. Reactionary and Oppressive
  5. They are wasteful, destructive of nature, because of the focus on production of wealth and power; they are predicated on the production of massive wealth
  6. They have a rugged power – as we see in the vitality of their symbols.[7]
  7. They are religious institutions and they are political; they are multifaceted symbiotic force – a political, cultural, social, religious, and intellectual regime – and therefore totalitarian, either by ideology or force, but more often today through technocracy.
  8. They often involve people in a denial of their most sacred principles, without explanation or rationale.
  9. And – oddly – it isn’t, as Augustine notes, all bad; they can produce much that is good and this becomes one of the secrets of their hold on power.

[12] More recently, we have learned to discuss the problem of “moral wound or injury” in regard to soldiers returning from battle. The idea here is that, with quite a different profile than post-traumatic stress syndrome, participants in massive evil, like war, may return with a diminished and distorted capacity for moral reasoning. It may be possible to apply this concept to societies, discerning that participation in mass systemic evil produces a distorted and diminished societal capacity for moral reasoning and behaviour. Colonial powers perpetuate these attitudes and behaviors, the IRS becomes perpetuated in the Child Welfare System, economic patterns, and the prison system.

[13] The Principalities and Powers, biblically, are related to idolatry, the making of that which is less than God more than God. The systemic evil is animated by this idolatry and the source of its inevitable moral collapse. The source the evil of Empire, its blasphemous claim to a loyalty and power reserved for God alone, is idolatry. The military and political over-reach is a by-product the idolatry that centers Empire.

Idolatry is hard for modern folks to understand. For the most part, “idol” is used to describe something desirable. It would seem that this is related to the widespread assumption that any actual reference to idolatry is historical. A secular society judges itself to be free of idols. We could suggest the opposite: secularism provides dense cover for idolatry. A society plagued by greed, is not free from idols. A system designed for domination is idolatrous.

Indigenous People and Empire

[14] Louie Riel and the almost concurrent Ghost Dance movement were both focused on the battle with Empire.[8] Both movements intuited a relationship between Jesus and Indigenous Peoples; a relationship between the people and the coming savior who would free them from an unjust tyrant. These apocalyptic movements echo the descriptions of systemic evil in Revelations, from the persecuted woman and child, to the mourning merchants in the ending cataclysm of history. They sensed an inner logic that explained their condition and pointed to a saving spiritual help.

[15] Empire subjected both movements to an attempt to drown Indigenous Peoples in assimilation, coupled with the on-going devastation of profound poverty and the forced absence of the rudiments of communal self-care. The animating argument to justify this cultural tidal wave has been referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which argues that people can be so primitive that they are, for their own good, subject to the annihilation of their culture. Empire, and the systemic evil associated with it habituates these ideas in on-going policy and deeply embedded cultural justifications and attitudes.

[16] The churches shaped their missiological practices in the culture and attitudes of Empire. They had, at the same time, a modulating effect on them. They called for a softening of the impacts on Indigenous Peoples and were often able to position their work, after the revelations of the TRC, as well intentioned. There is no doubt, however, that they participated in an act of “cultural genocide” as the TRC describes it. This begs us to discern a way forward that not only repents of such activities, but will preclude them from ever happening again.

What Can We Do?

[17] Missiologist Robert Schreiter [9] observes that most churches around the world are missiologically focused on the issue of idolatry, but that euro-North American churches are focused on belief. This appears to relate, in part, to institutional anxiety about preserving a market share of the larger cultural leadership. It means, in practice, that issues of idolatry are placed in the category of secondary catechesis, all but never reaching the pulpit.

[18] Church historian Alan Kreider[10] describes Catechumenal formation in the Early Church as offering freedom from four things:

  1. Escalating standards of living;
  2. sexual adventurism;
  3. xenophobic hatred and violence.
  4. The Magical Arts

[19] This was not only an effective strategy for its participants, it was also the primary evangelistic witness of the followers of Jesus. It speaks dramatically to churches mired in Empire.

[20] Participation in the post-TRC efforts at reconciliation provide an important way for churches to begin to engage and understand their own complicity with Empire. It can be the beginning of a confrontation with truth that will produce great benefit and renewal.


[1] The basis for this paper was the outline of a talk delivered to the Lutheran Ethicists Conference, January 7, 2016. We use Empire with a capital “E” to designate its particular animating inner form, perhaps its spiritual reality, as opposed to any particular or general manifestation of it.

[2] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to educate the Canadian public about what happened in Indian Residential Schools. In order to do that, over 3,000 survivors were interviewed to begin to name and record the oppression experienced by the First Nations communities in order to form a comprehensive historical record. Ultimately, the TRC wishes to make holistic reconciliation possible. “What is the TRC?” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. For more information on how the work continues, see

[3] Indian Residential Schools were created by the Canadian government and run by churches in order to isolate First Nations (aboriginal) children from their communities and assimilate them into Western culture. The school system operated from the 1880’s until the 1990’s. Physical and sexual abuse was very common at the schools and many children never returned home. For more information see Erin Hanson, “Residential School System,” Univeristy of British Columbia, 2009,

[4] Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004).

[5] See footnote 1 for link to further information.

[6] Ibid. For a concise summary of the report, see

[7] The vitality of their symbols can be seen in the way the way the operate to motivate behavior, often unthinking behavior as in the use of patriotic symbols in and out of crisis to quell discussion and dissent.

[8] For more information on the Ghost Dance Movement, see Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Owl Books, 2007). This classic book was original published in 1970 but has recently been rereleased with new resources.

[9] See, for instance, Robert J. Schreiter, Mission as Ministry of Reconciliation. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015) and Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985).

[10] Alan Dreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2016) and Alan Dreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007).

Mark MacDonald

Bishop Mark MacDonald is the Anglican National Indigenous Bishop and the North American President for the World Council of Churches. Since 2007, Bishop Mark MacDonald has served as pastoral leader to Indigenous Peoples in the Anglican Church of Canada. Bishop MacDonald was part of the Anglican delegation to the final stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.