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This Teachable Moment

by Berry Friesen (January 26, 2016)

(The sixth and last in a series attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon)

This US presidential campaign is a teachable moment because it displays so vividly the social behaviors produced by the practice of empire:  an attitude of entitlement to a huge portion of Earth’s bounty; a blind faith in military power and violence to manage the world; the use of pretense and deception to sustain an appearance of righteousness and an aura of legitimacy.

It wasn’t always this way; as recently as the ‘30s, those behaviors—though present—did not define us as a people. But since the Second World War, our society has gradually absorbed the imperial worldview.

In the current campaign, stepping away from an imperial identity is not regarded as an option. What’s up for debate is how to improve the empire’s performance:  a larger share of the take more widely shared, a world more compliant with the empire’s terms and conditions, less cost to the US in blood and treasure.

So what do you think?  Can an empire become more egalitarian?  More collaborative? Less violent?

Biblical writers from Exodus through the prophets, from the Gospels through the letters of Paul, did not think so.  Instead, they envisioned an entirely different way to run the world. In Jesus of Nazareth, we see this way embodied as compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil. No, not a formula for governments, but a way of life for those who “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

Of course, when I bring up Jesus, many will assume the subject has shifted to religion, but that’s not my intention.  Jesus clearly did not expect any government—any nation-state—to save the world, but that does not mean he understood salvation in other-worldly terms. Instead, when Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom of God,” he envisioned a force within history that is creative, resilient and world-changing, but not violent.

This “way” of Jesus subverted the ideology of the Roman Empire; Roman officials executed Jesus, James, Peter and Paul because of their activities.

And Second Testament writers understood the Roman Empire to be a leading cause of human futility and despair. Its vaunted “justice” executed the innocent Jesus (Acts 10:39, 1 Cor. 2:8), its “peace and security” fell apart under stress (1 Thess. 5:3), its “prosperity” required the slavery of the masses (Eph. 2:1-3), its “wisdom” gave birth to confusion and strife (Romans 1).  The apostle Paul described the Empire as “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13); John the revelator characterized it as a ravenous "beast" (Rev. 13:1).

So the point isn’t to ignore the political ferment of the 2016 presidential campaign, or to imagine we are somehow above it all. Rather, the point is to recognize in it the kind of society the empire is producing.  If we don’t like what we see, let’s not blame this group of partisans or that, but rather the worldview and practices that have been shaping us these past seventy years.

And then let’s join a movement giving birth to a different kind of world, one that doesn’t expect a nation-state to save us, but sees the way of Jesus as our salvation.  It is a way that shapes a different kind of society, which will produce a different kind of leaders.