The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Empire and Endurance
Ten days after the elections in the US, I wrestle with the reality of empire. The military, economic and cultural dominance of the United States is not new, but last week's vote strengthens its already prevailing patterns, both domestically and abroad.
Mr. Bush -- with just a 3% margin of victory over Mr. Kerry in the popular vote, and an electoral victory that hung on just one state -- is claiming a commanding mandate for his political agenda. He intends to make full use of the "political capital" that he generated out of the election to empower rapid and decisive new actions. Despite the deep divisions about the direction of the country that were revealed by the campaign, the continuing Bush administration is eager to solidify its agenda in multiple areas of foreign policy, legislation, bureaucratic rules and judicial appointments.
Empire -- whether Roman, Mayan, American, or other incarnations -- is characterized by power and control. It asserts itself within the boundaries of the empire, as well as in the sway that it holds over other parts of the world. Empire requires not only powerful armies and commerce, it requires acceptance of a world view.
In the opening days of the second Bush term, the empire will be asserting that its vision and its direction are the only realities. It will seek widespread compliance to what is presented as overwhelming political and moral power.
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How should people of faith live in the face of empire?
I turned to one of the most mystifying books in scripture, The Revelation to John, for insights. In that last book of the Bible, apocalyptic imagery is used to voice judgement of the Roman empire, and to inspire Christian communities. Church and empire is not a simple we-they division, though. Weak churches are harshly condemned, too, when they comply with the demands and the seductions of the empire.
Revelation's kaleidoscopic narrative is filled with vivid images and recurring themes. Making sense of those images is hard, especially for those who tend toward literalism. John seemed to know that interpretation would be difficult, for almost every section of the narrative ends with some sort of a summary that makes the point clear, or adds a "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" hint to look beyond the surface meaning.
In two of those clarifying passages (13:10, 14:12), John wrote, "Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints." That call to endurance, many would say, sums up the entire meaning of the book. All the rest serves to explain why endurance makes sense.
In other places where John writes of endurance, he adds an adjective: "patient endurance." In the face of persecution, even slaughter, John calls on the faithful to endure hardship and death, in confidence that God's purposes will be fulfilled. By God's intervention, the empire will fall, and the faithful will be vindicated.
Of all the books of the Bible, Revelation speaks most honestly of today's reality. It names the presence of a controlling empire, one which demands obedience and worship, one which stands in opposition to the purposes of God. It tells us that empire challenges churches to faithfulness and hard decisions. Having found a message there of "patient endurance" in the face of empire, I have a mixed reaction to John's advice.
On one hand, the situation for those of us who are guided by the faithful call toward God's shalom has many similarities with the first century Christians. When our faith compels us to seek non-violence and community, when it callus us to sustainability instead of exploitation, depletion and debt, we find ourselves at odds with the directions of our culture. Living from our values is lonely, and asserting our values can be risky -- leading at times to imprisonment, if not the death that faced Roman Christians.
John points to faithful endurance, not political action. Today, we need to face the reality that the empire will not soon crumble because of activism from our small community. When we engage in political activities, in cultural conversation, in economic resistance, we will often lose the short-term and immediate struggle. In those cases, we need to hear John's message, and hold to patient endurance. In this conflict between opposing world views, between empire and shalom, holding to our faith is, in itself, a valuable act.
But on the other hand, we in the US do not live (yet!) in a world like the Roman empire, where dissidents were slaughtered as a form of public entertainment, and where the vast majority of the populace willingly worshiped the emperor. We live in a democracy, and a deeply divided one at that. We live in an interconnected and diverse world, where challenges to American hegemony are evident, not only in terrorist acts, but in academic discourse, diplomatic negotiations, alternative economies, internet artwork, and political movements springing from sweatshops and plantations.
The first century Christians were genuinely powerless by all of the standard measurements of power. We have access to vast power -- economic, political, intellectual and cultural. We live within a system where dissent and transformation are possible. While those expressions of power are unlikely to usher in the Realm of God, there is much that they can do to soften the control of the empire. Our persistent, intentional and peaceable use of the power available to us must be one part of our faithful endurance.
The recent election did not offer a tidy choice between good and evil. John Kerry also campaigned within the context of empire, although with a slightly different character and expression. This 2004 election, though, consolidates and accelerates a form of the American empire that is far too comfortable with domination, exclusion, exploitation and privilege. Last week, the US edged a bit farther from shalom, when our nation might have taken a different turn.
In the coming weeks, months and years, we in the "religious left" will find innumerable challenges to our values and our goals. There will be more political battles than we can begin to fight, we will lose many of those that we do take on, and our rare victories will be partial ones. But we live within a system where we can take on those causes, where we can oppose the powers of the empire.
John's ancient call to "patient endurance" in the face of empire is meaningful. Especially within our political and social context, that endurance calls us into active engagement. May we endure with faith, hope and love.
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