by Berry Friesen
The faith of Messiah Jesus is powerful enough to break empire’s spell. That’s the good news. But I get ahead of myself.
Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, in their must-read volume on Colossians, describe our empire problem.
“Empires project a sense of all-embracing normality. Not only do empires want us to think that reality is totally composed of the structures, symbols and systems that have been imperially constructed, they also want us to believe that the future holds no more than a heightened realization of imperial hopes and dreams . . . If all the maps are provided by the empire, if all the reality we can see is what the empire has constructed as reality for us, then our praxis will never be creative, and it will never be subversive to that empire” (Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire at 155-6).
They also give us a definition of empire: “systematic centralizations of power . . . secured by structures of socio-economic and military control. They are religiously legitimated by powerful myths that are rooted in foundational assumptions, and they are sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captivate the imagination of the population” (Id. at 31).
Thus, in addition to the U.S. government and its various military and security forces, the current empire includes other nations, international financial institutions and networks of private entities (global corporations, banks, media outlets, think tanks, human rights organizations, charitable foundations). Indeed, private entities and individuals are the primary beneficiaries of empire.
Biblical faith – the faith of Jesus – breaks the spell of empire by giving us another map. Let me try to explain.
Empire wants us to think of life here in the educated and cultured West as tragedy – well-intentioned but flawed people doing the best they can to bring a measure of peace and stability to a world too big and complex to be managed. “We do the best we can,” our leaders say; “do you really think anyone could do better?”
Biblical faith knows about tragedy, but it speaks more about evil. We hear it each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “deliver us from evil.” It’s what biblical faith calls what the U.S. and its allies have done over the course of a decade to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine.
Empire wants us to think of the U.S.A. as the “indispensable nation.” This phrase, first used by Madeleine Albright in 1998 during the Clinton Administration, is meant to remind us how the forces of chaos would overwhelm us if the empire didn’t hold them back.
Biblical faith calls such talk idolatry – the worship of “the power of darkness” instead of YHWH. It speaks of Jesus “disarming” empire by his death on the cross (Colossian 1:13; 2:15).
Empire wants us to live in fear of death. It sends a parade of horribles across our flat screens so that we never forget our need for a savior.
Biblical faith associates empire with deceitfulness, especially in the book of Revelation, where empire is portrayed as a violent beast. This bit of realism opens our eyes to what should be obvious by now: empire fights on both sides of its wars, uses stealth and subterfuge to create instability and set people against one another, and creates threats that it then boasts of saving us from.
Empire wants us to doubt our own resourcefulness. It tells us that our future economic well-being depends on the financial wizards of Wall Street and on corporate giants who “create jobs.”
Biblical faith speaks of each dwelling under his/her own vine and fig tree, living in houses we built, eating food we grew.
Do we need an example of how compelling the empire’s map is? Consider this: after a decade in which the Bush Administration deceived us about Afghanistan and Iraq and the Obama Administration deceived us about Libya and Syria, most of us remain as loyal as ever to the empire’s map.
That is, most of believe Secretary of State John Kerry when he tells us that Ukrainian separatists shot down Malaysian Flight 17 and that Russia helped them do it. Or that the resurgence of Sunni militants in Iraq is a shocking surprise and a new and dangerous threat. Or that the people of Venezuela are oppressed by a corrupt government that lacks popular support. Or that after fifty years of trying, the United States still seeks a just peace between Israel and Palestine.
People still say, “I read it in the New York Times. I heard it on NPR. I saw it on CNN. Our leaders are doing the best they can.”
Experience, intelligence, sophistication, empathy – they all fail us as we encounter the empire’s map. It overwhelms our best judgment and most acute faculties. Though it repeatedly leads us to more violence, more inequality, more global warming, we remain convinced it is the only reasonable path forward.
Unless, that is, we have caught the virus of biblical faith – the yeast in Jesus’ parable of the woman baking bread. Then we follow another map.