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Our Existential Choice

by Berry Friesen (August 23, 2016)

The prophetic thread running through the Bible is committed not to reforming the empire, but to replacing it with something called the “kingdom of God.”   That’s the core stance of If Not Empire, What?

Writers within this biblical tradition desired the end of imperial rule, but they also regarded that end to be inevitable.  Why inevitable?  Because YHWH—the god those writers worshipped as the source of life—is compassionate, forgiving and opposed to injustice and oppression. 

For Second Testament writers there was a second reason:  YHWH had exalted Jesus of Nazareth—the man who lived compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil—by raising him from the dead.

When it comes to the empire, in other words, the prophetic biblical witness is not to reform the empire so that it is gentler, less ruthless and more long-lasting, but to resist it in a way that is consistent with the character of YHWH.  That is, with compassion toward the many dependent on the empire for their daily bread, with a spirit of forgiveness toward one another as we struggle to escape the grasp of imperial deceptions and policies, and with nonviolent practices that create an alternative to the empire’s ruthless methods and despairing future.

Resistance may strike many readers as an extreme proposition, especially during an election year when supposedly we have the power to decide who will lead the empire (or at least be its public face) during the next four years.  Don’t we have the capacity to improve the empire by who we vote into office?

This is the assumption within which most Americans operate (religious folks included). According to this perspective, the US-led empire is different from all those before it—more benevolent, less ravenous, more peace-loving, less violent.  We ought to support it, not resist it.

Events of recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Honduras, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen flatly contradict this illusion of imperial exceptionality.  Even under the so-called liberal President Obama, the US-led empire has functioned internationally as a criminal enterprise using violence and threats of violence to create chaos and extort control.      

Here at home we see evidence of the same spirit of domination in the militarization of policing and the frequent use of lethal violence against civilians.  We see it as well in the popular infatuation with guns, the open efforts to suppress voting by racial minorities, and the passage of trade, banking and tax laws that enrich the wealthy elite while depriving the working class of jobs. 

Of course, those whose understanding of the world depends on National Public Radio, the New York Times, cable news and the big-name wire services know little of this.  As they see it, the US-led empire isn’t in control of much of anything; mainly, it bumbles along doing the best it can in a tragic world not of its making. For those with this perspective, reform makes perfect sense, electing a new President of the US is a big deal, and Clinton vs. Trump feels like a question of nearly existential significance. 

But for those who have crossed over to the other side (both in how they read the Bible and in where they get their news), the US-led empire is simply the latest incarnation of the “darkness” and “death” of which the Bible speaks (Col. 1:13).  For such people, the existential question is not Clinton vs. Trump, but how to align today’s living with an anti-imperial alternative that reflects the character of YHWH.

Our book title (If Not Empire, What?) assumes readers are convinced of the urgency of forging an anti-imperial alternative.   But of course, most living in the West—religious or otherwise—are far from convinced. Instead, they remain hopeful that with a leader who is a little smarter and a bit more principled, the entity that has brought us continuous war and ruthless state terrorism will change its spots. 

That’s a far cry from the prophetic thread within the Bible, which imagines the humiliation of the great powers ruling the world, disarmed by the way of Jesus (Col. 2:15). 

Hard to believe, I know, so hard that it’s easy to see why many have embraced a christianity that avoids this entire subject.  Yet there it is, in the Bible:  the great existential question isn’t who we will elect for President, but whether we expect the way of empire or the way of Jesus to save Earth and all who live here.