A Kinder, Gentler Empire?

by Berry Friesen (March 3, 2016)

Can the US-led empire be saved?  That is, can it be convinced to turn away from deceit, violence and domination and seek peace and sustainable life on Earth?

Or is its collapse the best we can hope for, like the Soviet empire that broke apart without taking the world with it?

How pessimistic should we be about the empire?

The Bible gives us various perspectives to consider.  

The myth of David and Solomon was optimistic about empire so long as a righteous king from the House of David was in charge.  Ezra and Nehemiah lived at a time when being in charge was out of the question.  Still, in their view, empire could be a good thing, especially if enough people from “our team” were appointed to powerful positions within the empire.

However sincerely those viewpoints are espoused in biblical writings, they come across as cautionary tales when read within the context of the entire Bible.

Empire is a major theme of Genesis and Exodus and the authors provide a highly pessimistic view. So do Hosea, Micah, the authors of 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, and the author of Daniel.

In the Second Testament, the Apostle Paul called the empire “the power of darkness” (Col. 1:13). Yet he also left us with more optimistic messages.  For example, he was enthusiastic about preaching to top-ranking imperial officials and told persecuted Jews in Rome (perhaps facetiously) that the empire was “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad“ (Rom. 13:3).

The author of 1 Peter displayed no such ambivalence; he described the empire as “a roaring lion” prowling around “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  And John the Revelator described the empire as a ravenous “beast” (Rev. 13).

Jesus didn’t pay much attention to the Roman Empire, but talked all the time about the empire of YHWH.  As Jesus described it (see Matt. 5), YHWH’s empire bore no resemblance to the Roman Empire.  According to Mark’s gospel, when arrested and questioned by a high-ranking Roman official (Pilate), Jesus refused to speak.

On balance then, the Bible is pessimistic about empire, but not uniformly.

This past week I read accounts of the US-led empire by two well-informed observers who see a deeply malevolent spirit at work.

The first, from economist Michael Hudson, describes economic policies; it is entitled “The New Global Financial War” and is a transcript of Bonnie Faulkner’s Guns and Butter interview of Hudson.  Do we imagine the empire wants an efficient economy driven by market dynamics, broadly shared prosperity and a rising tide that will lift all boats?  That’s not at all how the US-led empire acts.  Instead, its economic policy is driven by the desire to enrich its elite members and destroy resistance to its control.

The second, “Empire of Chaos preparing for more fireworks for 2016,” is from journalist Pepe Escobar.  It describes the empire’s political purposes: the expansion of NATO and separation of Europe from Russia; the encirclement of China and transformation of the South China Sea into a war zone; endless proxy wars across Africa and the Middle East. It’s all about retaining dominance and destroying the viability of alternatives to the imperial system.

Chillingly, Escobar ends his essay with these quotes from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

"There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies....To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe....We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone . . .”