The front-piece of If Not Empire, What? re-tells the story of Naboth’s vineyard, as recorded in the 21st chapter of 1 Kings. John and I highlighted the story because it serves as a timeless allegory of empire.
Naboth inherited ownership of the vineyard. Though productive and useful, he did not view it as a commercial asset, but as a part of YHWH’s creation entrusted to the care of his family.
Throughout the world, we find people who value tradition, relationships and family obligations more than money.
King Ahab, in contrast, saw only a piece of land conveniently bordering his palace. He wanted it, had the money to buy it and was depressed by Naboth’s refusal to sell.
To the imperial elite, there are no ancestral lands, no special places. There are only commodities to be bought and sold.
Queen Jezebel embodied empire’s arrogance. As far as she could see, no power existed above the king and it troubled her that by taking “no” for an answer, the king had caused people to think otherwise. So she initiated a covert plant to dispose of Naboth.
Behind walls of secrecy, off-budget funding and deception, the empire conspires to work its will. Some co-conspirators are exploitable because of “issues:” criminal activity, doubtful immigration status, scandalous secrets. Others are eager opportunists distinguished by their violence: al-Qaeda, ISIS, mercenaries such as Academi, fascists such as the Azov Brigade, drug criminals.
The leaders of Naboth’s town were Naboth’s neighbors, but first of all they were ass-kissers and power-seekers. They welcomed the opportunity to impress the powerful and win favor. So they invited Naboth to a feast, framed him with false testimony as a threat to national security, and joined in his brutal murder by stoning. The incident appeared to be a local event, without broader significance.
After the empire sets its sights on a place, we usually see an upsurge in violence among local rivals covertly empowered by hidden streams of imperial resources: Hutu and Tutsi (Rwanda), Croat, Serb, Bosnian (Yugoslavia), Sunni and Shia (across the Middle East), pro-Russia and anti-Russia (Ukraine), Muslim and Christian (Nigeria). And when the empire wants a propaganda victory, we often find local politicians, police departments and media outlets willing to play along (think NYC and 9/11 or Boston and the Marathon bombing). You go along to get along.
Thus, King Ahab took possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
Once principled people have been killed or have fled, it is easy for empire to take what it wants.
Elijah the prophet spoke for YHWH, the point of accountability that Jezebel did not know about. Even though King Ahab had not been personally involved in Naboth’s death, Elijah accused Ahab of murder and told him a violent end also would be his fate.
YHWH opposes the empire. The self-destructive results of its greed, deception and violence are baked into life itself. The imperial elite shall not escape; as they have given, so they will get.
I encourage reading the story for yourself. It helps explain how today’s empire works.