Lately, the term "empire" has become increasingly common in describing America's role in the world. This was inevitable
since the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the U.S. as the sole remaining global superpower. We have all the normal
attributes of an empire: a far, flung and nearly omnipotent military force; world-wide cultural hegemony; a language that
is becoming the lingua-franca of the whole planet. While some might refer to America as an empire with pejorative intent,
the facts of the matter remain. By any measurement we are at least what an empire looks like in the 21st century.
There are those who think this is a good thing. Presumably they imagine that America will be the empire that finally
gets it right. Unlike the empires that went before, they hope that ours is the one that will last forever. At the very least,
perhaps they hope that the American manifestation of empire will last long enough to keep them fat and happy in their lifetime.
After all, it is argued, is not this American empire qualitatively different from all the others that have gone before?
Is not our influence based on freedom and liberty? Do we not deliver prosperity and progress wherever we go? Instead of
ruling, do we not inspire democracy and equality? Do we not bring liberation and deliverance from tyranny?
Of course, all empires have made these kinds of claims for themselves over the centuries. They are always bringing "civilization."
But the truth in the lives of conquered peoples never matches what those who benefit from imperialism tell themselves. Girls
forced to work in sweatshops in Indonesia have a different view of things than suburbanites who buy the sneakers and clothes
There are even some Christians who laud this ascent to imperial status. They say it will be a boon to evangelism, or
an opportunity to do more effective mission work. And it is true that God can and does often use all kinds of human evil
do to bring about the divine purpose of blessing and salvation to the world. Christianity might never have spread as far
or as fast were it not for the infrastructure, administration, cultural uniformity, and sometimes even support, provided by
the Roman, Byzantine, British, Russian, Spanish, and other empires.
Yet it remains the case that an empire simply cannot be instituted and managed by anyone who takes the teachings and life
of Jesus seriously. Indeed, remember that Jesus is himself tempted by Satan with this very thing. Satan offers him the "authority
and glory" of "all the kingdoms of the world." But Jesus dismisses this offering with the words, "It
is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'" (Luke 4:5-8). Jesus rejects
empire and will have nothing to do with it.
In this, Jesus recognizes that all empires are inherently and necessarily constructed on a foundation of idolatry. Worshiping
and serving God alone allows no room for devotion to the kinds of secular power and wealth that empire-development demands.
Empires are all therefore inherently Satanic and hence doomed. And some of the greatest saints of the Church, people like
Bartolome de las Casas in Mexico, and Herman of Alaska, found themselves continually at odds with the commercial and military
elements of their respective empires.
God has hated empires since at least the days when Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites. God dictated the Ten Commandments
specifically so that the people would not devolve into an imperial state like Egypt. When this showed signs of happening
anyway, God used larger empires, Assyria and Babylon, to crush any imperial ambitions the kings of Israel and Judah might
God sends Jesus and plants the Church like a virus in the body of the most powerful empire the world had known: Rome.
A few centuries later, Rome falls. When Rome reasoned that "if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em,"
and adopted Christianity, God inspires monastics to keep the faith even within the empire. When even the Church and the monasteries
became corrupted by imperial wealth and power, God sends the Reformers to draw out a remnant to the Word. When Protestants
then turned away from the faith and willingly sucked on the feeding tubes of empire, God sends, in the 20th century, both
Neo-orthodoxy and Liberation Theology to inspire faithfulness to the Word and dedication to the poor. When these strategies
get bought off by academia and special interests, God will act again and raise up another alternative.
God is not mocked, folks. Every empire in the history of the world has fallen. This is especially the case with the
empires that found Christianity a convenient cover for their conquests and control. Some have died long, slow deaths, like
the Spanish and British Empires; these former rulers are now reduced to barely significant, economically depressed, backwaters.
Some, like the Third German Reich, flare out in a spectacular blaze of death and catastrophe. The Romans were overwhelmed
by barbarians from the north; the Byzantines were overwhelmed by Muslims from the south, and the Russians overwhelmed by the
cancer of Communism from within. In their turn the Ottoman and the Soviet Empires are now also history. Where are the Assyrians,
Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Incas, Aztecs, Maya, and Mongols today?
Empires always collapse, like black-holes, from the crushing weight of what they have greedily consumed. In gobbling
up everything in their path, Empires also digest the seeds of their own destruction. Often this destruction comes not in
the form of a rival empire, but in, say, a motley band of Hebrew slaves. Perhaps the fall of an empire it is seen in the
visions of an exiled mystic on the island of Patmos. Maybe it is accomplished by the non-violence of a Gandhi. Perhaps it
is accompanied by the martyrdom of a Bonhoeffer.
Isaiah was writing about the fall of the Babylonian Empire when he noted "the grass withers, the flower fades; but
the Word of our God will stand forever" (Isaiah 40:8). And the Word of our God, Jesus Christ, will stand forever. The
key to life is to attach ourselves to him, to God's Word incarnate, and to hold to our trust in him and our obedience of his
commandments. So that when the empire du jour falls, as is absolutely certain, we, the believers in Christ, the Church, remain.