Monday, January 07, 2008
Are We Rome?
I just finished a really fascinating book comparing the Roman Empire to America (hence the title "Are We Rome?") especially in regards to the factors that led to the "fall" of the Empire and whether we are repeating their mistakes. The author, Atlantic Monthly editor Cullen Murphy, draws several provocative comparisons - the similarity between the capital cities of Rome and Washington, the over-dependence on military power and illusion of military invincibility, the increasing privatization of government functions, the false stereotypes of foreigners and attitude of superiority towards other nations, and the similar struggles with issues of immigration. Of course he points out many dissimilarities as well. Murphy sums up his observations towards the end of the book:
Are we Rome? In a thousand specific ways, the answer is obviously no. In a handful of important ways, the answer is certainly yes. As societies, America and Rome are built on different premises. As people, Americans and Romans cherish different values. But Rome and America share certain dangerous traits - habits of mind and behavior. America and Rome also face similarly fraught circumstances, arising both from inside and from outside.
After reading this book I'm more convinced than ever that America is in fact an empire. The terminology and the structures of government may change, but the fundamental realities are the same. However, I was also struck by one key difference in particular, which has to do with what Murphy said about the difference in values. If I had to sum-up and simplify the distinction I would say that the difference between America and Rome is that America is an "empire with a conscience".

What I mean is that while Rome embraced and even celebrated its imperial status and conquest of foreign nations, the casual cruelty and predatory violence in everyday society, and its glaring socio-economic inequalities, America at least is conflicted and troubled by its own practice of similar realities. We have developed a sense of conscience in the intervening centuries since the fall of Rome. We at least pay lip service to values like equality, compassion, democracy, and common decency, and would honestly be shocked and repulsed by some of the common practices of Roman society (the Gladatorial Games come to mind).

I don't say this to let America off the hook. Caring about certain values is still not as good as actually practicing them. In the end, is it really any better to say "Well, at least we feel bad when we act like every other oppressive, violent empire in history"? In some ways, it only makes us more hypocritical, and perhaps even blinds us to our own injustices. It's pretty easy to get caught up in the great ideals of America and gloss over the numerous times we have failed to actually live up to them.

But it is something. Having a conscience - developing a societal sense of compassion and justice for all - is a major step forward in human history. And while obviously this has been a complex moral evolution with many different influences and causes, I can't help but think this is an example of how the kingdom of God really is the on the move in history. Jesus' commands to "love your neighbor as yourself" and to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (the bedrock foundations of any social justice or compassion) have planted a seed in the human story that has slowly and gradually born fruit over these many long centuries.

Of course, the last thing I want to imply is that this is a solely American, or even solely "Christian" thing. Obviously this same moral progress has been true for many nations around the world, and obviously many other religions have long been teaching similar truths to those of Jesus (though to me that is simply more corroboration of the truth of Jesus' kingdom message). The frame of reference for this book was "Rome vs. America" but the social and moral changes that have occurred in the past 1500 years affect all societies to one degree or another, not just America, and not just Christian societies.

Anyhow, if anything, the one major edge that America (and other similarly affected societies today) have over Rome is this sense of conscience - the ability to be self-critical and to desire and work for improvement. It's hard to overestimate how important these traits are. But of course, for these traits to bear fruit requires actually listening to our consciences and then acting upon them. It does no good if we simply ignore our faults, or even say that pointing out faults is "un-American or "un-patriotic". (Wouldn't the true patriot want to help her country see its faults and overcome them?) That's why I think it is more important than ever for the church to embrace her role as a prophetic voice to the nations - to call them to repentance for their injustices and point the way forward into the values of God's kingdom. If we don't do it, hopefully others will, but really, we should be leading the way.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:30 PM | Permalink |


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