What is Empire?

This may seem a digression from the topic of this blog, but if the question of what we should eat ultimately involves issues of justice then the answer must involve the church’s relationship to the state. There…now I’m justified in discussing this topic here.

I will be teaching the Netzer Co-op May 17th on “Relocation to Abandoned Places of Empire.” Some of you may recognize that this is one of the 12 “marks” of new monasticism. I’m in the early stages thinking through what I will talk about and how the evening will go. I thought it worth processing some of these thoughts here, particularly as they intersect my theology of food in numerous ways. I think I will organize the evening around three questions 1) What is Empire? 2) Where are the abandoned places of Empire? and 3) What does relocation mean? I’ll consider each of these questions in separate posts.

So, what is empire? Many call America an empire, but historians debate the accuracy of that description. In God and Empire, John Dominic Crossan defines empire as an entity that dominates in four areas military, economic, political and ideological.

Walter Wink calls empire a domination system. In order for this system to perpetuate its military dominance it must rely on the “myth of redemptive violence.” This is the idea that violence will be bring about peace and stability. This story so permeates our culture that we almost don’t see it. It is in almost every action movie, news story, cartoon, TV show and novel that we consume. It is the air we breathe. In fact the idea that violence can somehow achieve peace is so pervasive that we cannot even imagine the alternative, that nonviolence is a better way. We create elaborate “what if” scenarios to debunk the possibility of nonviolence. Empire dominates our imagination and molds us into a particular way of thinking, seeing and understanding the world.

Empire also controls economic power. This may be more difficult to put our finger on today than it was for Rome or other empires. Nevertheless, a shrinking number of companies and people control the flow of the world’s goods and capital. This could be an entire series of posts, but suffice it to say that the majority of the world’s people are not in control of the economic forces that run their lives. We have already considered how “free” the free market really is.

There is also the myth of democracy. In America this is most evident by looking closely at the two choices we seem to have in every election, Republican or Democrat. Both would have us believe that they are diametrically opposed to each other, yet they so often vote similarly and have similar agendas. The tell-tale sign is the money trail. All of the largest contributors to political campaigns and parties play both sides. Both Republicans and Democrats are beholden to the same corporate interests that finance them. It helps for people to believe that they have choices and can participate in the system, so that they can be co-opted to perpetuate as little change as possible.

Finally, empires dominate through ideology. Pax Romana or the American dream, what’s the difference? The thing that got the earliest Christians on the wrong side of Rome was not that they chose the wrong religion. Rome could care less who you worshipped…so long as you bowed down to Caesar as Lord. Imperial theology is the glue that holds the thing together. Propaganda is what allows empires to continue to dominate people and stay in power. The earliest Christians, indeed Jesus himself, got on Rome’s bad side because their message undermined the very glue that kept them in power.

After considering all of these elements I would like to suggest a definition of empire as that which defines the framework for thought and life and orders our lives over against the alternative imagination of the reign of God.

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