Notes on Peter Block and “Art Calling Out Empire”

I’m attending an amazing conference in San Antonio titled “Our Abundant Communities: Neighborly Nourishment in the Wilderness.” Here are my notes from Peter Block’s session titled “Art Calling Out Empire.” (The following notes are close to being quotes but there is no guaranteed precision so I will not use quote marks. It would be best to see them as paraphrases.)


“Empire” (a patriarchal, top-down system) stands for control and predictability. … A triangle is the symbol of empire.

Most systems have organized effort in a certain predictable way.

Community or neighborliness is able to imagine another world,
a different world from empire.

How do you create a future distinct from the past?

Help people create an alternative future.

What is the methodology of transformation?

The patriarchal methodology is to create a blueprint of the future you want. You then determine how to measure it. You train people for that future. Then you appraise performance. These are the tools of patriarchy. It’s not destructive, it just makes things a little better.

Community thinks bigger. It organizes certain core beliefs.

If I believe I can help you (as the patriarchal culture asserts), I’ve established superiority over you. … You are, in essence, deficient.

Sports is the dominant metaphor for this patriarchal culture — competition. … In this culture we think poor people are at fault.

With communal transformation you can’t explain everything by personal history.

We can reconstruct our way into an alternate future.

What do we do when we come together?

A room without windows makes nature obsolete.

The circle is the symbol of community.

Focusing on deficiences doesn’t make them better. Focus on gifts.

Community is built on relatedness, not planning. … It’s a shift in narrative. Transformation is a shift in narrative. … I can’t be explained by my history. Narrative is just a constructed history.

Poverty is the absence of possibility. … The work is to shift the narrative. … Small groups shift the narrative.

(As a participant in community, you are a citizen. I didn’t get this point well in my notes.)

“Citizens” in small groups engaged in conversation change the world.

Art brings us together. … We tend to treat it as peripheral.

Talk about possibilities, not problems. Talking about problems becomes a barrier to transformation. … You have to show up as a change agent.

I am my commitments.

(Block then divided us into groups of three. He told us not to offer help to one another because “help is a colonizing form of existence.” He told us to substitute curiosity for providing help. We were to see with our knees less than nine inches apart. In preparation for our dialogue he also said, “Research is not very compelling. … Connectedness is what changes people.” Each person in the group then answer these two questions: Why is it important for you to be here today? What’s the crossroads you are at?)

In response to Block’s presentation, Walter Brueggemann offered the following comments:

Exodus 15, which deals with the period after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, says the “first act of their citizenship was to dance.”

Also in response, John McKnight offered the following:

The world of empire is a world of pretense. Empire controls people in order to produce a lot of the same thing. This creates the need for a consumer of these many things.

The triangle symbolizing empire stands for control, production and consumption.

There is a whole other world outside the market (that empire doesn’t see). What is the life outside of market about? It is about consent, care (service) and citizenship (everyone equals power).

My reaction to Block’s presentation: This is so different from how organizations normally function, but it’s so compelling. I wonder, how does it fit with a Jesus-centric culture.

Block made some final comments:

Art doesn’t need a facilitator. …

Art invites performance. …

The audience makes the art.

Re-posted with permission from Ferrell’s Place

Photo: Q Thomas Bower 


About the Lead Author

Ferrell Foster
“It’s easy for some people to say what they do,” says Ferrell Foster, “but my place in this world is a bit more complicated.” "I’m sort of a minister, but not of a church; sort of a writer, but I haven't had anything published in a while; sort of a manager, but that sounds more boring than it is. So here’s the title: associate director of Texas Baptists’ Advocacy/Care Center. I get to work with the ethics, community development, restorative justice, chaplaincy and counseling ministries of the Baptist General Convention of Texas." Ferrell lives on a ranch in Texas that’s been in his family since 1904 and blogs at Ferrell’s Place: Looking at the World

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