Reconsidering Empire: Does it Matter?

As self-proclaimed progressive Christians start praising the virtues of empire, scholars teaching at conservative institutions are writing critical studies of it (Tony Jones, In Praise of Empires,  R. Alan Streett, Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination During the First Century, 2013). What will they think of next?

Having published on religion and empire myself (Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, 2007 and Globalization and Theology, 2010), it is time to clear up some widespread misunderstandings. While the critique of the Roman Empire and its first Christian Emperor Constantine is time-honored—picked up and effectively promoted by the Reformation and some of its traditions—the application of the term empire to our own contemporary situation is relatively new. In the United States, critiques of empire only proliferated after the George W. Bush became the forty-third President of the United States. This is also where the confusions begins.

The situation is not helped by the fact that many Americans who talk about empire do so in a moralistic tone. Still lacking for the most part are deeper theological and historical assessments. Let me explain.

The problem with moralistic condemnations of empire is that those who utter them tend to put themselves on moral high ground. That works to some degree for contemporary condemnations of the Roman Empire because we are not subject to it, but it does not work for the globalizing empire of neoliberal capitalism. Even if the 99 percent are only benefiting from this empire to limited degrees, they are still part of it and drawn into its efforts to shape its subjects all the way to the core. Affected by empire are not only politics and economics but also culture, faith, emotions, and friendships.

While those who live under the conditions of empire cannot step outside, they might nevertheless be able to grasp the ambivalence that goes with empires. Here is one place where the current debate is missing the boat. Tony Jones seems to think that the ambivalence of the Roman Empire—it crucified large numbers of people but it also built roads—is worthy of praise. Would he be willing to say the same thing about Hitler, who also built roads and ordered mass executions? While the ambivalence of empire is hardly something to be applauded, we need to take it seriously, as postcolonial theory has taught us.

Ambivalence is what empires fear, because they need their subjects to believe that the dominant way of life is the only one and that there are no alternatives. In the Roman Empire ambivalence is what the early Christians embodied when they exposed the false gods of power who imposed their burdens on the masses, worshiping instead a God who rejected top-down power (Matt 4:8-11). This is what made them dangerous and it has been argued that this is what helped bring down the empire eventually.

In the globalizing empire of today, ambivalence is embodied in alternative movements that once again expose the false gods whose power is built on the backs of the many for the benefit of the few. The difference is that this power is exercised in more hidden but no less effective ways than in the past: instead of crucifixions, conquest and concentration camps, the threat of unemployment and financial ruin is what pacifies people, and the production of desire has reached new levels of intensity. And if movements continue to resist the peace of the empire (recall the Pax Romana), they will be dispersed by other means, from the common practice of union busting to the traumatizing raids of the encampments of the Occupy Wall Street movement around the nation.

There is a historical lesson here: empires have in common the effort to control all of life, but they take on different shapes and forms. Some even look benevolent and most produce useful results like roads and technological progress. This makes them at times difficult to spot before it is too late, as the history of the church in Nazi Germany teaches us. Many Christians in Germany did not realize that carrying flags into churches might be a problem until after the empire had fallen.

This brings us to the theological lesson. The question for people of faith is not primarily whether empires suit us or not (empires always suit some more than others and not all of their accomplishments need to be dismissed); the question is: Who is our God? The problem with empires is that they seek to answer that question for us. During the days of the Roman Empire there was a choice to be made between Caesar and Christ. Christians understood that they could not have it both ways. Today, there is another choice to be made, this time it looks as if it is between God and Mammon.

Our current confusion is made worse by the fact that, unlike in the Roman Empire, many of our images of Mammon resemble our images of God. Instead of Caesar’s image that was imprinted on Roman coins, US Dollar bills bear an image of the Trinity and the words “In God We Trust.” This confusion is why we need theology more than ever, and this is why I would suggest welcoming all who are willing to work together across our various divides to pay attention to the ambivalence of empire and to strengthen the alternatives that grow out it. This is what matters.