That Annoying Word--Empire

by Berry Friesen (March 17, 2015)

Across the library of texts we know as the Bible, we find authors who identified the reigning empire as the builder of the road to slavery, violence and death.  This point of view is not unanimous; indeed, early in the Second Temple era, the Persian Empire was described as YHWH’s servant.  Yet “empire” is a concern in most of the texts.  By surveying each book of the entire Bible, If Not Empire, What? helps readers assess how seriously the Bible regards empire’s threat.

“Empire” is a provocative term.  It harks back to ancient times very different from our own.  Now, some critics say, creative energy comes from too many different directions for any single power to assert control.  To suggest otherwise is to venture perilously close to a conspiratorial mindset.

Some also hold the view that the USA is exceptional and indispensable.  Thus, the violent and oppressive implications of the word “empire” simply do not apply and should not be used when discussing the global “coalition of the willing” the US government has assembled by virtue of its moral standing.

In chapter 6 of our book, we follow Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh in identifying the capacity to define how the world works to be a key attribute of an empire.

The US-led empire has such a capacity because of its overwhelming military power positioned for ready use all around the globe, because of its economic power, because the U.S. dollar is the primary currency of global trade and because it maintains constant surveillance of the entire globe via its satellites and “Five Eyes” digital monitoring.

And lest we forget, because the US-led empire has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use brutal and overwhelming violence in the form of nuclear attacks (Japan), chemical attacks (Vietnam, Iran), violence against civilians (Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Yemen),  cross-border invasions that violate international law (Iraq), conspiracies to effect regime change (Iran, Cuba, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela), industrial sabotage (Iran), terrorism (Greece, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Algeria, Syria, Ukraine) and trade sanctions (Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Venezuela).

The control employers, institutions, all governments and some families assert over their members may reflect the imperial worldview, but it is not indicative of “empire” because it does not stigmatize and foreclose nearly all other choices.  An empire is so vast, so multi-faceted in its power and so infused with moral authority that it can claim to provide the only legitimate and defensible account of how the world works.  It is god-like in this ability.

The fact that there remains active opposition to the US-led coalition does not mean it is not an empire. When we assume past empires extinguished all opposition, we exaggerate for the sake of convenience.

Many whose understanding of faith has been shaped by the Christian religion object to our emphasis on “the empire” for an additional reason.  They see it as a distraction from the core message of the Bible, which they describe as our broken relationships with God and one another.  John Stoner and I respond to this criticism in an article recently published by the Mennonite World Review. I won’t repeat the content of that article; instead, I encourage interested readers to read the article here.

Others find incomprehensible the notion that the world does not have to function by imperial rules. Violence and exploitation are the foundation of the world, right?  Leonard Cohen captured this sentiment in the refrain to his song, The Future: “When they said, ‘repent, repent,’ I wonder what they meant.”  The world is what it is—“red in tooth and claw”—so don’t tell me I’m supposed to pretend otherwise.

Yet on balance (though not unanimously), the biblical writers do ask us to repent, to turn from a path that assumes violence and exploitation are necessary and important elements of life.  Though another way is nearly unimaginable, the Hebrew prophets attempted to describe it, Jesus gave us a vivid and unforgettable glimpse and his followers fleshed it out even more.

The empires of this world want us to believe that violence and threats of violence are an important and  necessary part of life.  Jesus showed us the deceitfulness of that worldview.  For more about how he did that, see chapter 19 of our book, especially pages 236-238.