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So what does “empire” mean?

posted by Scot McKnight

ConstantinesArch.jpgToday one of the most evocative terms to use, especially as a one-word put down, is the word “empire.” Very few define it. Most connect it with Constantine. Most are using to defend Leftist politics and use it to critique Rightist politics, and then Jesus is brought in to defend … and it’s all so suspicious. And I have to admit that I’m inclined to believe the empire criticism of today’s scholars because of my own Anabaptist beliefs. But those beliefs have to be checked against what the NT teaches, not what I’d like to use it to say.

Do you think this is how the Left uses the term “empire”? What do you think “empire” means when its used in biblical, theological and colonialist studies?
So, I came across a recent definition … well one intelligent person’s (Daniel Pipes‘) riff on the meaning of the term in political (and theological) discourse:
What the Left opposes: The prime enemy is something called “Empire” (no definite article needed), a supposed global monolith that dominates, exploits, and oppresses the world. Sternberg summarizes the Left’s all-embracing indictment of Empire:

People live in poverty, food is contaminated, products are artificial, wasteful consumption is compelled, indigenous groups are dispossessed, and nature itself is subverted. Invasive species run rampant, glaciers melt, and seasons are thrown out of kilter, threatening world catastrophe.

Empire achieves this by means of “economic liberalism, militarism, multinational corporations, corporate media, and technologies of surveillance.” Because capitalism causes millions of deaths that a non-capitalist system would eliminate, it also is guilty of mass murder.

The United States, of course, is the Great Satan, accused of hoarding disproportionate resources. Its military oppresses the poor so its corporations can exploit them. Its government promotes the pretend danger of terrorism to aggress abroad and repress at home.



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RJS

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:19 pm


You’ve linked p. 2 of Pipes’ article (a little confusing at first).
I have to say – I don’t think his riff is a very helpful way to persuade or to promote a conversation.



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Rod

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:26 pm


Interesting article but I think that his critique of the political left’s use of the term empire is different from the complexity that postcolonial studies brings to biblical and theological studies. And of course, he labels all of those who are “anti-imperialist” as Marxist, since he is, writing after all, for a conservative magazine. Maybe he should try listening to a Ron Paul libertarian. Is Ron Paul a Marxist for being anti-empire? A quite polemical article.



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Scot McKnight

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:29 pm


RJS, fair enough. It’s a strong statement, I admit, and it’s very clearly from the Rightist angle. But that is how the Left is using the term “empire,” no?



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Scot McKnight

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm


Rod, does Ron Paul use “empire”?



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Rod

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm


@Scot,
Yes, Ron Paul is known in circles as a critic of empire. I use his quotes as a resource. In fact, from the essays and parts of the books by Ludwig Von Mises that I have read, he also criticizes imperial structures. Von Mises is known as the father of Austrian economics. The anti-empire critique is more complex than the simplified version given to us in the article.
Here is a link to Ron Paul:
Paul, R. (2009) Anti-Iran Sanctions Punish civilians, Are An Act of War. http://www.campaignforliberty.com/article.php?view=447



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DRT

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:53 pm


I think it is pretty obvious to people of my generation at least what the connotation of empire is:
The Roman Empire (and fall thereof)
The Galactic Empire (Star Wars)
The Japanese Empire (reference to WWII in particular)
The Evil Empire (Regan vs. the USSR)
The Evil Empire (Microsoft)
The Evil Empire (The Yankees)
An empire is a power with too much power. It follows that it is evil because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Dave



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Scot McKnight

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm


Rod, I’m asking a more particular question: Does Ron Paul use the word “empire” for what he is criticizing?



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David Wierzbicki

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:36 pm


I find Walter Brueggemann’s 19 theses to be much more helpful than just flatly talking about empire vs. jesus. He does a great job of explaining just how the dominant script (empire) differs from the imagination of God in the Biblical account of Jesus.
http://soupiset.typepad.com/soupablog/Brueggemann_19_Theses.html



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Rod

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:39 pm


@Scot,
Yes, he does use the word empire. His goal is that America become a republic like the founders want it. He is not a biblical studies scholar, but I think in order to understand our culture, we need to listen to as many voices as possible. Criticisms of empire are more complex, and have come from both the left and the right historically. William Jennings Bryan (in spite of his reputation) was an opponent of Woodrow Wilson’s war mongering and imperialism because of his Christian commitments. That’s why he wrote “The Prince of Peace” and resigned from his Secretary of State position. To be honest, I have noticed the silence of a few post-colonial and liberal religious studies circles, but what community doesn’t have hypocrites? I know a lot of persons on the left see Paul as part of the problem, but that is because they are un-reflective of their own left wing political preferences. That is just my opinion.
Quotes:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-real-news/ron-paul-says-its-time-to_b_123670.html
http://rawstory.com/rs/2010/0410/ron-paul-chastises-gop-conference-conservatives-like-empire/
http://www.lewrockwell.com/paul/paul369.html



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MatthewS

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm


I had the impression that something along these lines were on Walsh and Keesmaat’s minds in Colossians Remixed.



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MatthewS

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm


DRT, we can say this for the Cubs: in popular imagination, they are not “The Evil Empire.”



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Nick

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:11 pm


One of my New Testament essays for my Theology degree was on exactly that question, here’s (a slightly edited version of) what I wrote in part of my conclusion at the time:
“It is my view that the symbol of empire represents any power which sets itself up against God, and this will be an enduring symbol throughout history until evil is finally destroyed.
So what does it mean for God?s people to come out of Empire (Revelation 18:4)? The purpose of Revelation is to call its readers to an awareness of the insidious nature of the empires that oppose God, in order to lead those readers away from the empire and towards God.
The seduction of Babylon is very powerful, and to look back at the words of Christ to Laodicea, it is clear that this church had been lured by the material seduction of Babylon. So then what does it mean to come out of Babylon? I would agree with Howard-Brook and Gwyther that coming out of Babylon means shifting our focus from Babylon and turning towards New Jerusalem, seeking to resist the wiles of the whore and seeking to find New Jerusalem and God. To come out of Babylon does not mean to abandon the literal Babylon, whether that be the Roman Empire, Jerusalem or whatever empire is ruling, but rather to turn our focus from the ?beauty? of the harlot towards the glory of Christ and to let our visions of him shape our lives.”
There is empire in all of us and in all of what we build, even our churches!



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Rod

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:32 pm


@Nick,
I love this quote:
“There is empire in all of us and in all of what we build, even our churches!”
I would say this in our postcolonial biblical interpretation class, to the chagrin of the professor and students. :)



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Scot McKnight

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:37 pm


Well, Rod, I take issue with Nick:
When it means that, Nick, it no longer means anything. Empire is more than the desire to dominate or control. Empire’s got to be more than that.



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Jordan Peacock

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm


I’ve definitely seen the Left use empire in this manner, but I’ve also seen it used and defined to far more useful ends – some of the discussions over at Jesus Radicals/Jesus Manifesto, and particularly the work of Mary Jo Leddy have been useful.



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Rod

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:44 pm


@Scot,
I understand. My classmates and professor for the poco biblical interpretation course also disagreed with that quote, but recently, one colleague admitted that the statement could be true. I just understand the nature of empire as changing and fluid.



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Jeff

posted June 25, 2010 at 3:23 pm


I think one of the most helpful developments in the use of empire has been the study of the ideology. Crossan’s discussions of Roman imperial theology have helped broaden the understanding of empire. It is not simply what is done (the action of an empire) but how the empire sees, speaks, and thinks of itself and its influence on those living within it. There are several scholars in Biblical studies that draw out these ideas in the Roman context (Horsley, Carter, Crossan, Elliot).
Marx’s critique of ideology is helpful in this endeavor and is foundational to postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, and critical theory. This enables the discussion to revolve around the more than static oppositions (us vs. them) but the construction of, and maintenance of empire (on both sides). James C Scott has influenced many of these biblical scholars and his work on resistance helps frame the discussion of the NT writings as acts of resistance and formation. I think we are already starting to see the acknowledgment of the NT’s own imperial construction (the NT has its own empire in mind).



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Ted M. Gossard

posted June 25, 2010 at 5:07 pm


Why does empire have to mean anything more than a world power? The consensus is that the United States is the dominant, and even one world power today, but that China is on the rise and the US perhaps on the decline. Nor do I think there has to be only one empire or world power at a time.
Isn’t this the way the world seems to work when we consider history? A united nations, I think a 20th century development, has still not been able to seriously detract from this.
And for us in Jesus I think there has to be a difference between the kingdom of God against empire as in the kingdoms of this world. How do we interact and live as those in the world, but not of it, a big question for me. How does that relate to the “state”?
I add my thought here, not being sufficiently schooled I know, and maybe lacking, but I’m not impressed with what I see as Christians buying into the ideal and ideology to some extent of world powers, and specifically in my view, of the United States. Which is a mixed bag, but surely has something in it of the characteristics of past empires such as Rome.



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kevin s.

posted June 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm


I find ironic the fact that those who reflexively oppose “empire” typically support a very powerful centralized government. Typically, empires are formed by consolidating power domestically, and expanding it internationally.
Ron Paul critiques of empire reside within this context, and it has the benefit of intellectual consistency. Those who oppose “pax Americana”, but pine for Rome at home are incoherent and, I suspect, will embrace a stronger role for the U.S. military as the memory of George W. Bush fades away.
We saw a similar relationship between the social gospel (i.e. the wheel that leftist Christians seem desperate to reinvent) and Woodrow Wilson. Wilson favored absolute control at home and abroad.



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Rod

posted June 25, 2010 at 9:55 pm


@Kevin S.
That is Ron Paul’s appeal to me. The consistency of his argument.



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DRT

posted June 25, 2010 at 9:59 pm


kevin, hmmm, you say that people who oppose the end support the means, yet isn’t it the nature of a third way to find a way out of that endless cycle?
I agree that many will go down your path, and that is the way of history, but change happens by doing it differently at least once…
Dave



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Matt

posted June 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm


This post raises an important issue about the USE of the term “empire” in popular and scholarly parlance. At its worst, slinging the word “empire” becomes a way to demonize any use of power–as if there is any other option–by political or religious entities. Accordingly, in Christian circles, the term empire can become a way of identifying oneself with one of Israel’s prophets like Isaiah or Micah. We all like to imagine ourselves marching up to a tyrant and “speaking truth.”
Of course, and here is my critique of how “empire” is often used, Isaiah and Micah were proponents of a “good empire” centered in Zion. So, maybe those who critique “empire” as such should also be obligated to play the prophetic game and cast a vision for the legitimate use of power in a “good empire” (without resorting to a false spiritual vs. earthly dichotomy).



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Michael W. Kruse

posted June 26, 2010 at 12:01 am


Kevin S. #19
“I find ironic the fact that those who reflexively oppose “empire” typically support a very powerful centralized government. Typically, empires are formed by consolidating power domestically, and expanding it internationally.”
Bingo.
The best selling book right now is Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.” While I don’t recall that he spoke explicitly of “empire” (writing in the 1940s), the idea that European socialist leanings would ultimately lead to subservience to a ruling elite who would dominate our lives certainly implies the empire metaphor. I think Pipes largely has the left version of empire nailed … it is largely a catchword way of “smuggling in” Marxian and Malthusian ideologies as the morally legitimate response to empire.
I bought a book (I haven’t read it yet) that suggests we in era that sees a battle between two “Eco” religions (“eco” coming from the Greek “oiko” meaning “household.”) There is ECOnomics, where libertarian types have a quasi-religious faith in markets to effectively address our every need. There is ECOlogy, where there are types who essentially view human existence as a threat to the natural world, which they treat with deity-like reverence. I suspect that both would see the other as trying to impose empire.



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RonMcK

posted June 26, 2010 at 9:52 pm


When the nephew of the president organizes a coup in Iran to rescue BP, empire has begun.



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