Wednesday, August 29, 2007
The Failure of Empire
I've recently been reading Colossians Remixed, an amazing postmodern commentary on Paul's letter to the small Christian community in first century Colossae. In it the authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat argue that the epistle is actually a subversive text that intends to contrast the Lordship of Christ and the primacy of his kingdom over the claims of Caesar and the Roman Empire. They bring out how the message of Colossians is relevant to all of us who still seek to live the way of Christ while immersed in the context of empire, whether it be the Pax Romana or the Pax Americana - the imperial vision of Caesar or the imperial vision of global capitalism.

One of the key themes they bring out is that earthly empires, both ancient and modern, all claim to bring their citizens prosperity, peace, and protection (among other things). "We will take care of you," they say, "we can bring meaning and fulfillment to your lives and protect you from all harm." And yet, despite its promises, the claims of empire have repeatedly throughout history been proved a lie. The empire's peace comes at the point of a sword (whether in Roman conquests or American attempts to spread democracy through war); the empire's prosperity comes at the expense of those on the bottom of the economic food chain (outright slaves in Rome's time, and the slaves of sweatshops and coffee or chocolate plantations in the modern world); and its protection usually only extends to the wealthy, the socially acceptable and to political allies.

In contrast then, Jesus the Messiah offers a counter vision to that of the empire: true peace based on a willingness to suffer rather than inflict suffering, prosperity that is based on generosity and sharing resources with one another rather than exploiting the earth and individuals for all you can get from them, and a community that looks out for each other irregardless of race, gender or socio-economic status. At its best the church, the alternative community Christ established has been this counter-witness to the imperial agenda. At its worst the church has merely aped or even baptized the claims of whatever empire it find itself within. Nonetheless, the original vision of Christ's kingdom remains, and I find it a compelling alternative to the imperial lie.

I was reflecting on this failure of empire to actually deliver on it's promises yesterday on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina, I think, was a perfect example of the failure of empire and the triumph of the church. In the days immediately after the hurricane struck and the levies broke I remember reading stories of churches from all over the country who were already on the ground lending a hand. Some of these churches were already there helping the afflicted and alleviating the devastation several days before the federal government even got on the move. Our imperial forces, so good at creating destruction in other nations, apparently had no ability to actually guard against destruction here at home - at least not for poor black people in a typically blue state (and if you think that blaming it on politics is too cynical, just look at the way our Republican president and the Democratic governor of Louisiana and Democratic mayor of New Orleans each tried to pass the buck with each other in the early days after Katrina, rather than actually get anything done.) The imperial promise of protection turned out to be a lie, and its failure also revealed the lie of universal prosperity as evidenced in the legions of urban poor uncovered before the eyes of the media in the aftermath of the storm.

And even now, as the federal government still stumbles its way through reconstruction in New Orleans, there are still churches all over the nation who are sending teams to rebuild and to help the victims who still suffer the effects even two years later. No matter our many other failings as the church in recent years, in this area at least we are being the kind of alternative loving and giving community Paul and Jesus both talked about. In this case the kingdom of God really has managed to outshine the tarnished claims of the empire.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:49 PM | Permalink |


5 Comments:


At 9/05/2007 07:50:00 PM, Blogger Andy Culbertson

It seems like a real double-bind. On the one hand secular governments promise but can't deliver the kind of peace and prosperity people need, and on the other hand the church can't take over the government because it ends up getting corrupted by power. Is government inherently evil? Is it something we always need but must never completely trust? Are there other, non-empire forms of government that would avoid the criticisms you've brought up?

 

At 9/06/2007 10:38:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Andy,

Good question. Walsh & Keesmaat would say that "government" is not always or necessarily synonymous with "empire". In their book they define empire with the following markers:
1) built on systemic centralizations of power,
2) secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control,
3) religiously legitimated by powerful myths, and
4) sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captivate the imaginations of the population.

W & K actually describe our current imperial reality as much larger than just America. They point to global capitalism as the system with the most imperial tendencies today, with America probably being just one system or power structure within this empire.

At any rate, I don't think it's a question of governments being inherently evil, but rather that all governments can have that tendency if they start acting like totalizing systems that try to capture and control their citizens' imaginations. But it doesn't seem obvious that they would have to act this way. When government is simply functioning as an expression of communal and social responsibility - i.e. our responsibilities to care for our neighbors and provide for the common good - then it is a good and necessary thing.

In fact, it is precisely because I believe in the importance of this kind of government, that I am not a libertarian that just wants as little governmental involvement as possible. Libertarianism seems to me like an overreaction in the opposite direction to the excesses of empire. Indeed, if the empire is in fact more than just governments, but is in fact the entire global capitalist system, then a libertarian ethic that restricts the ability of governments to reign in corporate power and mitigate gross economic inequalities may actually be facilitating the very empire that it seeks to restrain.

 

At 9/09/2007 06:57:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

On the one hand secular governments promise but can't deliver the kind of peace and prosperity people need
Sure it can. It just usually doesn't, especially in the U.S. The problem is that you first have to get people to agree on what the government should do: we've got one party that wants peace and prosperity at a social level and one party that wants to create an arena where peace and prosperity can be preserved for those who win it. If you look at Leftish countries in modern Europe, you'll see that they do a decent job of attaining the former. If you look at Rightish countries like feudal Europe or ancient Sparta, you'll see that they did a good job of attaining the latter. While I have a strong preference for the first over the second, trying to pull a nation in both directions simultaneously as we are is about the worst solution imaginable in the long-term.

Indeed, if the empire is in fact more than just governments, but is in fact the entire global capitalist system, then a libertarian ethic that restricts the ability of governments to reign in corporate power and mitigate gross economic inequalities may actually be facilitating the very empire that it seeks to restrain.

I've always seen the Libertarian platform as being based more on paranoia. It doesn't seem like it inherently has to be, but every blurb I've ever read by one of their candidates has been filled with conspiracy theory and vaguer on exactly why they want public office, typically with all the fields in the pamphlet left blank except for the final "About Me" rant-blurb. I can't see them having a chance until they figure out how to reconcile their theories and their practices.

Incidentally, I wouldn't call global capitalism an empire, as that falsely suggests that it's a unified thing: it's more like an anarchistic system in which some of the players have nukes both figuratively and literally.

 

At 9/12/2007 12:34:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I'm a fan of contemporary European nations too, but let's not kid ourselves, they've hardly created a utopia. They're doing better than they have in the past, but they still have their problems - many of which have just been shoved beneath the surface these past half-century. And they've still been just as complicit in the injustices of the Western world as America has been. Perhaps even more so than us, their wealth is based on the exploitation of (what is now) the post-colonial world. Not to mention that they've been just as involved in imperialistic military adventures this past half century as we have. Who do you think were our allies through the whole Cold War clash of empires that defined the late 20th Century?

No, I don't know of any nation that has succeeded in creating a truly just and peaceful society. Even with the good ones all you have to do is scratch the surface a little bit to find the dark underbelly.

"I've always seen the Libertarian platform as being based more on paranoia."

I've seen that too. Most of my friends who are hardcore libertarians do tend to be of the conspiracy theory variety. Though at the same time, within conservative Christian circles, I'm seeing a strong skewing towards a libertarian conservativism, with the basic assumption being that government can't solve any of our problems and we should just leave things up to churches, charities, and the free market to sort out. I think a lot of this has to do with a growing disillusionment among evangelicals with the failures of the Republican Party to live up to the hopes of the Religious Right. For those evangelicals who are disenchanted with the Republicans but who would never vote for a Democrat or agree with progressive Christians like Jim Wallis, Libertarianism seems like a good third option - a way of saying "I'm a true conservative, even if the Republicans no longer are."

 

At 9/12/2007 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Incidentally, I wouldn't call global capitalism an empire, as that falsely suggests that it's a unified thing: it's more like an anarchistic system in which some of the players have nukes both figuratively and literally."

I agree, it's not one-for-one analogous to empires like ancient Rome that had a single (or sometimes dual) head. However, it's not quite complete anarchy. There are centralizing systems in place like the World Bank, the IMF, the G8 nations, and the few dozen multi-national corporations that own over half the world's wealth, that are basically the new Caesars. It's more like an imperial Hydra this time than a single-headed Eagle though. Many heads, but all basically working more or less for the same goals and under the same driving myths.

 

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