As people committed to the Messiah’s peace, should we stop talking about empire?
During the late ‘90s and through the first decade of this new century, opinion-leaders found the term to be descriptive of the global system of control and influence the United States had achieved. I continue to regularly use the term, as do many of the authors I read. But over the past few years, I increasingly sense it sets people’s teeth on edge.
On the other hand, people seem pretty open to talking about power and the ways people control one another. Most everybody can identify a “system of domination” they think should be dismantled and so a conversation using such terminology goes much easier.
Since “empire” elicits such resistance, perhaps we should stop using the term. What conversations might we lose by doing so? Here are three possibilities; there may be others I haven’t thought of.
1. The term “empire” begs for explanation. It brings to mind old maps of “British possessions,” all of the same color and spread around the world, and newsreels of mighty armies rolling across national borders to gobble up other countries. None of that fits the era in which we live, so the door opens naturally to conversation about neoliberal trade policy, international debt, the dollar as the world’s currency, NATO, global military spending, full-spectrum dominance, proxy wars, covert military operations in 134 countries last year, global satellite surveillance and the “five eyes” signals intelligence network, cyber warfare, rogue states, vassal states, etc.
2. The term resonates biblically. YHWH saved the ancient Hebrews from slavery in the Egyptian Empire. YHWH delivered Judah from almost certain extinction at the hands of the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonian Empire put YHWH’s people to the sword. The Greek Empire butchered hogs on the temple altar in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire executed Messiah Jesus, as well as many of his disciples. The word packs a punch; people familiar with the Bible know that YHWH isn’t on the side of empire. If we’re happy participants in an empire today, we’re in big trouble.
3. The term takes us into theological discussion. We know YHWH creates reality, not only at the beginning of time but still today through communities of people who put their faith in the way of Jesus. Well, empire has this same god-like power. As Karl Rove famously put it to author Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Talking about empire leads naturally to discernment of how to resist the messages, images, stories and controversies it wants us to dwell on.
So I ask: are any of these three conversations important to people of peace? If so, will we have them even if we stop talking about empire? If so, then we should stop. Because as messengers of the Messiah’s peace, we shouldn’t agitate without good reason.