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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 249–252 

Book Review

Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire

P. Travis Kroeker. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2016. 86 pages.

Reviewed by Douglas Harink

The publication of Travis Kroeker’s 2013 J. J. Thiessen Lectures at Canadian Mennonite University gives what many of us who know his work have been waiting for: a concise and accessible introduction to this important theologian. Kroeker is best-known for his book on Dostoevsky, Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity (coauthored with Bruce K. Ward). He is also the author of numerous articles and essays in contemporary political theology, Christian social ethics, philosophy, and Mennonite studies. We will be fortunate to have a {250} number of those gathered into a volume soon to be published by Cascade under the title Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics. But perhaps Kroeker’s most important influence on contemporary theology is borne in the numerous graduate and doctoral students he has mentored at McMaster University and who now lead and teach in churches, colleges, and universities throughout Canada and the United States.

Kroeker’s work is guided by Paul’s vision of the reality of Jesus Messiah, in the light of whom the truth of all things is apocalyptically disclosed. That includes the truth that human beings and societies are enslaved to and suffer under cosmic-historical systems of domination, systems brought into being by our disordered, possessive desires. Jesus Messiah delivers us from this evil through his own self-emptying desire—his love—and frees us to participate in that love and imitate him, to share his messianic life in diasporic communities of love.

Equipped with those core convictions, Kroeker takes us on a journey of desire from Genesis to Revelation, from “erotics” to “kenotics” to “liturgics.” Along the way we encounter a complex interweaving of pathways in theology, political philosophy, cultural criticism, art and literature, and Mennonite history. In other words, this is a rich and deep book in which Kroeker’s learning (also evident in the endnotes) shines through on every page, yet does not obtrude.

“Erotics” in chapter 1 names desire in Genesis 1–11 as the biblical story of beginnings moves from the gracious “socio-erotic union” of the man and woman in the garden to the possessive, dominating desire represented by Cain (Hebrew qanah = to possess) and the tower of Babel. Babel signals the erotics of empire, the creation of a controlling “monolithic, monolinguistic” sociopolitical community in direct disobedience of the divine command for human populations to spread out, diversify, and pluralize on the face of the earth (as seen paradigmatically in Genesis 10—which Kroeker does not mention). Nowhere in modernity is such a political Babel more perfectly envisaged and desired than in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and the notorious pictorial “Frontispiece” of the first edition. In contrast to that vision, Kroeker proposes (following Jeremiah 29 and J. H. Yoder) “the possibility of shalom through diverse, local communities of scale,” a “diaspora” ethic that refuses political control for the flexibility, attentiveness to need, and potential for peacemaking embodied in “quotidian” faithfulness.

No account of “economies of desire” can ignore our relationship to money and our uncontrolled love of it, a love described as greed (pleonexia, which Paul says is idolatry—Eph 5:3; Col 3:5). In chapter 2, Kroeker draws on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, on Martin Luther, on Joseph Conrad’s apocalyptic Heart of Darkness, and on the {251} history of Mennonite capitalism in Steinbach, Manitoba, to explicate the godlike power that money attains over personal, social, and political life. Our love of money and the resulting debt-bondage form the “political economy of Mammon” which enslaves us and which stands in fundamental “apocalyptic opposition” to the “political economy of Yahweh.” Only a radically different economy of desire can liberate us. Kroeker draws us to the self-emptying kenotic desire of Messiah Jesus that Paul narrates in Philippians 2:5–11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In its economy of shared personal and communal life, the church participates in and imitates the kenotic desire of the Messiah. The church thus embodies a “poetic parabolic practice” in the midst of Mammon’s kingdom which reveals that we are liberated from bondage to Mammon and that the power of the gospel is real.

In the final chapter, Kroeker shows that the gospel—the kenotic desire of God for us in the Messiah—is not a simple cancellation of human desire but is its transformation. Two more apocalyptic texts feature here: the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse) and “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Book of Revelation discloses history as a “liturgical battle.” Babylon in Revelation represents the “empire erotics” already displayed in the story of Babel, but now exposed more explicitly, subtly, and horrifically. At stake in the battle is whether humankind will worship (hence “liturgics”) Babylon/Mammon or the Lamb who was slain (in kenotic desire). This is an apocalyptic war of desire waged in every Christian heart and in every church (see the first three chapters of Revelation). The problem with Babylon is that she appears to be beautiful and to promise human happiness and fulfilment. Why else would we desire her? The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s story knows that a church formed by the “empire erotics” of Babylon stands a much greater chance of success in the world than the alternative revealed in the slain Lamb. But the messianic alternative reveals Babylon as both ugly and empty, and this sets up a spiritual struggle over how our desires are formed. That hearts and communities might be conformed to the Messiah’s economy of desire demands an ascesis, a journey into the wilderness (like the people of Israel in Exodus), so that we might be “reeducated by listening to a mysterious God in the difficult circumstances of everyday life.”

Ultimately Kroeker calls Christians to the difficult work, in Jesus Messiah, of messianic “active love”—the “daily un-glorious, ascetic perseverance in the everyday. It requires death to the self-desiring ego in order to be reborn in the ‘one mind’ of messianic oikia where in humility I count others as better than myself . . . this participatory ascesis . . . is the {252} transformation of creation by holy erotic divine love.” That is clearly a message not only for Mennonites (to whom Kroeker primarily addresses these lectures), but for all Christians and congregations. As such, this small but rich book would serve as an ideal text for church study groups, or as a brief, accessible orientation to any course in Christian ethics.

Douglas Harink
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of Theology
The King’s University, Edmonton, Alberta

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