Thou Shalt Not Be Cynical!

by Berry Friesen (June 16, 2015)

Renunciation of the empire does not fit well with contemporary notions of healthy spirituality.

It conveys too little respect for the political elite and the complexities they face, too much skepticism of the way they and their allies in the media describe reality.  It too readily disparages the motives and intentions of leaders with the snide remark.

It sounds cynical and leaves people wondering whether the speaker is embittered about life.

Yet biblical writers often encouraged a scornful attitude toward the reigning empire.  We see this most vividly in the way the writers of Exodus described the Egyptian pharaoh. But we also find it in the prophets’ description of Israel’s ruling elite, Daniel’s descriptions of Babylonian rulers and the Apostle Paul’s depiction of the Roman ruling class (see Romans 1:18-32).

How does one reconcile a desire to be sunny and positive with biblical criticism of empires and empire-wannabes?  This tension is a major stumbling block within any group of people exploring alternatives to the imperial way of running the world.

Most in my social circles resolve the tension by concluding the American empire is different from its predecessors because it attempts to dominate the world for positive purposes.  The list of such purposes is long:  prosperity; peace; equality for women, ethnic minorities and people with same-sex attraction; the rule of law; democratic values; freedom of religion; etc.   Many believe in this so strongly that they regard U.S. wars of aggression as well-intentioned mistakes, not evidence that the current empire is like those the biblical writers warned us about.

How do we work our way through this tension?

First, we need to remind ourselves that one can be a person of faith (and thus hopeful and positive about life) while also being highly critical of the empire.  The prophets did it. We also see it in Jesus as he called King Herod “a fox” and predicted his own death at the hands of religious leaders and political authorities in Jerusalem.  And we see it in Paul’s letter to the assembly in Colossae and in The Revelation to John.

Second, we need to get acquainted with honest reporting on the empire’s activities and impacts in the world.  This is not found in mainstream western newspapers or in cable news, so we will need to look elsewhere:  reporting in foreign newspapers, the alternative media and even the news services of other governments.

What we read there will be terribly depressing, to be sure, because we hate to hear that the American empire is often as malevolent, murderous and deceitful as any other that preceded it.  But that depressive feeling can be an important step along the pathway toward the faith of Jesus, who harbored no illusions about the beneficence of collaboration between the Jewish elite and Rome, but nevertheless trusted God to bring good from the confrontation that awaited in Jerusalem.

Third, we need to recognize a frightful irony:  whenever opponents of empire are regarded as cynical people, then the cynicism and hopelessness of the imperial worldview has indeed carried the day. For only people of faith and hope can look into the darkness of empire, call it by name and yet dare to imagine an alternative.

As God is our strength, may it be so with us!