Review of Sharon D. Welch’s After Empire: The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace

[1] One of Sharon Welch’s gifts is to take a common ethical question and discuss it in ways few have imagined. She transforms questions into prisms which invite us to turn them in the light and meditate on what the resulting refractions might mean for our moral vision. In After Empire, Welch approaches an issue that many scholars currently are writing on-resistance to U.S. militarism-and asks us to pivot away from standard analyses (just war theory, pacifism, and economic influences in international relations) toward a “postcolonial comparative religious ethics.” She does not want to condemn imperialism as much as understand its allure while offering another vision of strength, power, and force arising from engagements with multiple religious traditions.

[2] On the whole, the results of her inquiry are provocative and creative insights about the amorality of religion, the irony of all ethical systems, and joyful need for enlargement of the self. At its best, After Empire beckons the reader to face the enduring depth of moral ambiguities and claim them as the joyous ground for wise and compassionate politics; an invitation that almost no scholar offers as continuously and creatively as Welch. Yet for Welch’s comparative methodology to flourish over time, she will need to deepen the complexity of her methodology, pay more attention to resources within Christian traditions, and perhaps modify her desire to rework the “social contract.” With sustained attention to these issues, Welch promises another compelling phase to her unique development of, what I term, a theological ethics of activism.

[3] Following Foucault, Welch argues that the future of theology or religion lies outside European legacies and requires outside voices in order to see the injustices and possibilities of “western” systems. This is a common refrain in much liberationist writing in the last decade, but Welch is careful in noting that her turn to “outside” religious systems is not meant simply to “borrow a peace mandate” but rather to evoke one from our own histories as we encounter other peoples and, most importantly, “other visions of community and power” (xviii). Drawing on Mark Heim’s work, Welch warns against casual appropriation of other traditions and instead works towards “authentically relating to the same religious fulfillment sought in our…own.” In engaging challenges posed by other religious traditions, the goal is to discover temptations and alternatives to empire in our own histories and, more specifically, restructure the logic of empire in our ongoing spiritually based political activism.

[4] Seeking this authentic relation to other traditions, Welch begins After Empire autobiographically as she invokes the memory of her parents’ activism for her two absolute principles for life and work:

1. Even under a modicum of justice, life is wondrous, rich and profoundly meaningful, a glorious gift to be celebrated and cherished. (7)

2. I and every person, movement, group, and institution I trust can be deeply, profoundly, tragically wrong. Not only can we be wrong in minor ways, but our best ideals can be used to justify cruelty and wrong.(10)

Welch describes her parents’ work for justice as grounded not in condemnation of others but in “good-humored resilience” and a deep love and zest for life. She sees the gift of this activist spirit confirmed and extended by her interactions with engaged Buddhism, Native American traditions, and African American humanism. Importantly, these traditions also share with her own history a recognition that paradoxes-peace and violence; solidarity and domination; justice and injustice-exist in every person, group, institution, and even religion. Throughout the book, Welch builds on these resonances to argue for practices of memory, laughter, respect, ceremony, audacity, and risk to hold together the beauty of life and the irony that we all overstep our bounds even through our best intentions.

[5] To cultivate the kind of ethical virtuosity that can inextricably link her two principles, Welch accepts the invitations of Native Americans and engaged Buddhists to learn with them. From co-teaching with Carol Sanchez for a number of years, Welch has been drawn to understand the genocide and resilience of Native Americans. In these traditions she finds an invitation to understand the cultural myopics that drove U.S. cruelty to native peoples and discovers that it is often “the nobility of our ideas that has blinded us to the brutality of our practices” (103). Detailing the often understudied history of oppression of Native Americans (a gift in itself in this book), Welch concludes that as proponents of freedom, we often commit atrocities in the name of absolute good. To understand and work better with this paradox, Welch turns to the Native American trickster myths which teach that while the sacred always surrounds us, its power can be used for healing or cruelty. Embodied in humorous stories of human folly, trickster myths remind us of the ambiguity of morality and call us to pay attention to the disharmonies in community while not taking ourselves and our moral certainty too seriously. For Welch, the trickster traditions invite activists to imagine calls for justice not based on the purity of a prophetic outsider’s jeremiad but a playful and wise respect for the wonder of life, practices of respect, and recognition of the ambiguities that surrounds us.

[6] Welch turns to engaged Buddhism after participation in anti-nuclear protests where she observed robed monks chanting peacefully in the midst of the angry and despairing voices of other activists. She realized that the monks’ practice was as much a protest against the activists as it was against the nuclear weapons and began to learn from their ways of “being peace” and avoiding dualisms of good and evil, self and others. Through meditation and non-dogmatic practices of compassion, the engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh calls for a spiritually based political activism that does not “condone or ignore the harm that we and others may do, but our basis for trying to prevent the damage done by others, by ourselves, now emerges from compassion, not from a desire to punish or blame” (148). For these engaged Buddhists, social action is not so much grounded in immutable justice convictions and absolute truth as in wisdom, compassion and “nonknowing.” This nonknowing involves “simultaneously knowing, bringing with deep conviction all that you have learned and experienced, and at the same time, being ready in any interchange for a startling shift in perception, a new way of framing the world, of seeing depths and insights that you could not grasp before” (155). For Welch, the practices of compassion recast power as the capacity to act with openness, improvise with new insights, and remember the tragedies of this world while still affirming and working for the beauty and joy of life.

[7] One of Welch’s most compelling points throughout these engagements is the amorality of religion and the necessary practices the must accompany the acknowledgement that even our best ideals may be used to justify brutality (a point Scott Appleby also develops in The Ambivalence of the Sacred). For even as Welch recognizes the many gifts that engaged Buddhism shares with her, she recognizes that Japanese Buddhism underwrote much brutality and imperialism in World War II. Welch does not want to idealize the “other” but learn with outsiders to see her own traditions injustices and possibilities more clearly. Yet with her careful attention to certain strains of Native American and engaged Buddhist traditions, there is little in After Empire that directly reconstructs “western” religious traditions, let alone the major religious tradition of the United States, Christianity. While Welch’s pedagogical style is to encourage the reader to ask questions of their traditions, more is needed within the text to enable this process.

[8] For example, Welch purposely contrasts Western definitions of the sacred (defined as invoking absolute standards of righteousness) with the fluidity of Native American conceptions embodied in trickster stories. While this is an evocative point, I find this approach to comparative religious thought wanting in its inadequate attention to the complexity of one of the religious traditions. The contrast with “western definitions” is made with no source citations and the complexity of Christian traditions is left wholly unmentioned-especially feminist re-workings (e.g. Sally McFague). Unlike the insightful theological excavation that grounded Welch’s criticisms of Christian conceptions of sovereignty and control in A Feminist Ethic of Risk, the western tradition and implicitly Christianity is often a mere foil or ghost in this text. Christian readers of this text will find few aids for comparing their understanding of theological concepts, such as sin, with insights about moral ambiguity from Native American traditions. While in Sweet Dreams in America Welch clearly contrasts her understanding of ambiguity as a joyful gift of finitude with the depiction of ambiguity as a fundamental flaw (theologically named as sin/falleness), After Empire offers fewer places to clarify the contrasts between other traditions and that of the Christian majority in the United States. While Welch is certainly not obliged to write about Christian understandings, omitting a fuller discussion of Christianity in a time when pretensions to empire are often driven by Christian theological assumptions is a choice that has to be more explicitly justified within the text.

[9] This limitation also arises when Welch turns to her rework the social contract tradition in light of her encounters with other religious traditions. Her proposal for restructuring the western tradition comes through developing a new “collective historical social contract” that includes attention to “all my relations” (from the Native American influence). While she acknowledges the historical limitations of the social contract (e.g. centrality of individual property rights and its idealized autonomous individual), she argues that new practices and attention to both our animate and inanimate relations can recast the spiritual and ethical nature of the social contract. In Welch’s new understanding of the social contract, democracy becomes a western version of a sacred ceremony which collects the wisdom of generations and cultivates attention to our impact in the world. In fact, she criticizes feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young for seeing the intricacies of democracy as necessary drudgery and offers instead a trickster understanding of the everyday practices of democracy which focuses on the ironic joys and lessons of political life.

[10] Welch’s hopes for a collective, historically aware social contract are compelling and her trickster and nonknowing metaphors invite us to think of democracy in generative ways. Yet, as a Christian ethicist, I again wonder why she does not turn to another resource/metaphor even deeper within the historical and religious history of the “western” tradition. Why seek to alter radically the social contract when “covenant” might be a better option for our visions of political activism? Covenantal political relations are based on promises between peoples who entrust themselves to one another and thus create new moral communities; not a social contract balancing of rights. Covenants historically involve more key actors than social contracts including the Divine/sacred, peoples, and the land and they explicitly argue that individual identity is only lived out fully in sociality. Ceremonies of remembrance, healing, and renewal are also built into the cycle of covenantal promising. Yet for Welch, the covenantal tradition does not even emerge as a possibility for the western tradition despite its prominence in Christianity and the numerous religious ethicists who have been working to reinvigorate the covenantal tradition in the republican tradition. Again, while Welch certainly is not obligated to turn to Christian resources, discussing empire while also engaging Christianity and complexifying the western political tradition would greatly extend the needed impact of her project.

[11] Sharon Welch is truly one of our most gifted public ethicists in the last half century. Her capacity for poetic beckoning into moral complexity and sustained political activism is matched by very few. Every text she writes promises to introduce the reader to people, practices, and texts that they have never met before. After Empire offers another intriguing offering to dance in Welch’s world of honest, joyous, work for justice. My criticisms of her newest adventure are offered in the deepest admiration of the risks she takes for all of us. I only want more, not less of her gifted ethical imagination.