Has America become an Empire? With the demise of the old Soviet Union, America certainly exists as the only remaining super power in the world. And that is a unique place to be, uncharted waters in many ways. For nearly our entire history we have either been underdogs who bravely faced up to super powers, or were one among others. Now, we stand alone.
Our singular superpower status has created some interesting temptations. For instance, the preemptive attack on Iraq and the effort to create a democracy out of the rubble of Saddam’s dictatorship has prompted some analysts to suggest that these are the actions of an empire–global domination through political and economic ideology.
Of course, it’s impossible to say the word “empire” and not think of Rome. In fact, some of the founders of our country were great admirers of ancient Rome. But there’s a problem with empires. Sooner or later, they all seem to eventually fall of their own weight.
At least that is what two new books on the subject are suggesting. Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? and John Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire both arrive at the same general conclusion. Empires display certain characteristics which under the right circumstances can contribute to their collapse.
Of the two books, Crossan’s is the most compelling from a faith perspective. The subtitle says it all–“Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.” Crossan is one of the key scholars in researching the historical Jesus. He has also done extensive research into first century history and sociology, especially as it relates to the Roman Empire.
Perhaps the most valuable feature of the book is the careful way he contrasts the values of empire with the values of Jesus. Crossan demonstrates that Rome, and the empires that have followed it, basically establish themselves by means of violence. Peace is achieved through victory, that is, military victory.
Jesus, on the other hand, preached peace through justice. Illustrations of this idea of peace through justice can be found in Jesus’ commitment to non-violence resistance. His words about turning the other cheek and going the second mile only make sense in relationship to Roman oppression.
Peace through justice is also evident in Jesus’ efforts to reverse popular thinking about the poor in his day. Rather than seeing the poor as cursed, Jesus said “blessed are the poor.”
Crossan argues that peace through justice was fully embraced by Paul as well. His declaration that in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” For Paul, there are no hierarchy or class distinctions. All people approach God equally.
The other side of this discussion, the empire side, explores the role of violence in establishing empires. Crossan asserts that empires exist as the “normalcy of civilization.” It is not just rogue states and fanatical regimes that do violence in the world. Simple ordinary empires cannot exist without violence.
According to Crossan, the process follows a predictable pattern. Empires rise, they are victorious, they reign, they create a kind of peace, but eventually they succumb to the same violence that gave them life.
Crossan argues that Jesus proclaimed an alternative to this cycle, an alternative that offers a chance for enduring peace, not war. The only thing that must be surrendered in order to have this peace is the lust for empire.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.