Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Empire, Shempire

Many of the progressive Christians I hang out with routinely refer to America as an "empire." I've always had trouble with this. Yes, America is a powerful nation and has not always done the right thing, but are we equal to Rome?

Tony Jones, believes that contrary to the standard belief among liberal Protestants, we are not an empire. He gives his reasons as such:

An empire has, by definition, an emperor. As frustrated as you may be
by the malicious buffoonery of the Bush-Cheney oligarchy, they do not represent
an emperor. Exhibit A: They won’t be in office as of January 20. In
fact, it looks as though they will have virtually no power in the governance of
the United States as of that date (unlike, for instance, Vladimir Putin, who set
himself up as prime minister of Russia after constitutional term limits ended
his presidency). I was a classics major in college (geez, I hate it when
people tell me that what they majored in during college makes them an expert in
that topic), and I lived in Rome. I know how and why the Roman Empire
fell, and it did, indeed, have a lot to do with office of emperor and the abuses
inherent thereto.

We, on the other hand, are about to elect a new president. And with an Obama presidency (barring some unforeseen tragedy), there will be thoroughgoing housecleaning in Washington. This is what never happened in Rome. Julius Caesar, who overcame the other two members of the Triumvirate, ruled Rome pretty well. His adopted heir, Augustus (nee Gaius Octavius) was arguably the greatest ruler of that empire. And from there it was pretty much downhill (with notable exceptions). Why? Graft. Immorality. And the “divine right of kings.”

Presbyterian Pastor Jim Bonewald argues that just because we don't have an emperor doesn't mean we don't share the characteristics of an empire. I disagree. Part of the whole concept of empire is that it has an leader that is almost considered a god. The other characteristic is that the State tends to have an overall power over everything. Maybe this is a simplistic analogy, but look at the whole Star Wars saga: the old Republic was a representative democracy with an Senate and checks on power. The Empire had a emperor that ruled by force.

It has become very fashionable to see the United States as an empire during the Bush years and especially after the invasion of Iraq. But even though the government did get into a stupid war which sought to extend its influence, and even if it did try to erode civil liberties, this is not the same as an empire. President Bush will step down in January. A new president will take over for 4 to 8 years and then he will step down and be succeeded by another president. President Bush is not seen as a god and the State is not seen as the overarching institution in society that controls every aspect of society.

I have always thought there was a certain ideological tint to this tossing of the word, empire. Many who throw the word in regards to the United States rarely talk about other nations or regimes that have acted imperially, such as the old Soviet Union.

My own thought is that it gives some progressive Christians a sense of cache. Here are the noble Christians, fighting against the horrible empire.

The United States have done many bad things in the recent past, including torture and the misguided war in Iraq. Christians are right to challenge those policies. But the United States isn't an empire. To do so, is to make light of the people who have been oppressed by real empires.


thechurchgeek said...

I would suggest that the "god" of our empire...and that the US is just one part of a larger empire of globalism as Tony himself seems to suggest - is of course not the President, but the unquestioned "god" of consumer capitalism.

After all, in the end I think Obama's rise in recent weeks in what normally would have been a hotly contested election, is based primarily on our concern about our pocketbooks...just because we don't have an emperor in physical manifestation doesn't mean we don't have a "god" that we all serve.

Dennis Sanders said...


When I have heard the word empire used, it almost always refers to the United States and not consumer capitalism.

That said, I do think that consumerism is a god that we need to deal with.

But here is a question for those of us in the Emerging Church. We talk of consumerism, but we are also the people that are buy a lot of high tech goodies with iPods and
laptops and all of that. What does that mean?