Converting our Imagination 5

The Book of Revelation is a theopolitical text, a text assaulting the idolatries of the Roman Empire. This approach raises a number of vistas for reading the text.

Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation discusses this theopolitical reading of Revelation. It’s about empire.

This is very popular today. In fact, many are suggesting anti-empire readings are motivated by one’s politics and not by solid historical readings.

One could argue that such readings not only appeared during the Bush era but are now on their decline because Bush is gone. In other words, some are arguing that anti-empire readings are simply anti-American or anti-Bush or anti-Republican or anti-capitalist readings. Which leaves us with the big question.

In fact, two big ones: the first one is this: Is the USA an empire? The second one…

What is an Empire? His definition is important and vital:

An entity that has come to widespread (global or nearly global) dominance
through deliberate expansion
by means of the extreme exercise of some form(s) of power
resulting in the creation of colony-like clients of the entity and
of enemies who perceive the entity as oppressive.

Gorman wisely backs off a bit to say this:

It is more important for us to see Revelation as a critique of secular power whatever and however it expresses itself oppressively, and

especially as a critique of such power that is deemed sacred and granted devotion and allegiance.

So, Gorman sees the danger in sacralization of power and State. The danger is civil religion, which has three characteristics:

1. Sacralizing the State.
2. Demand of solemn devotion.
3. Reinterpretation of the culture’s dominant religious traditions — colonizing religion into culture and State.

Back to our question: Is the USA an Empire according to these two sets of ideas — the meaning of empire and the nature of civil religion?

Gorman lists the following elements of American civil religion:

1. American exceptionalism: chosen and Manifest Destiny and even a messianism.
2. Extreme patriotism and even nationalism — that USA is superior to all other nations.
3. Human liberty and rights as America’s mission and what he calls “secularized Calvinism” (freedom abounds to the degree one is generous and works hard).
4. Militarism and sacred violence: use of violence that displaces the use of peaceful means.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Watchman

    Gregory Boyd expounds upon this very theme in his excellent book entitled, “The Myth of a Christian Nation”. I highly recommend this read.

  • Nitika

    The definition of Empire is a good one. And I would identify three Empires that are active today. None of them are nation-states, they are all ideological.

    1)Democracy
    2)Communism
    3)Islam

    Each of these empires commands the allegiance of several nation-clients. They are all seeking to expand their territory. They are each considered evil by strong adherents of the other ideologies.

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com Blessed Economist

    Nitika
    You are right
    Democracy is a serious form of empire.
    http://kingwatch.co.nz/Times_Seasons/Hegemony/wounded_beast.htm

  • Mark Farmer

    Does Gorman address the question of multinational corporations as empire? A case could be made that they are an incarnation of Mammon worship whose power, reach and sanctity far exceed those of any state. The documentaries The Corporation and Food Inc. have been eye-opening for me in this respect.

  • Mark Farmer

    Just remembered that Richard Bauckham in his book on the theology of the Book of Revelation says that the two beasts represent the political and economic power of Rome. If he is right, then empire must be thought of not just in terms of states.

  • http://arbevere.blogspot.com Allan R. Bevere

    “One could argue that such readings not only appeared during the Bush era but are now on their decline because Bush is gone. In other words, some are arguing that anti-empire readings are simply anti-American or anti-Bush or anti-Republican or anti-capitalist readings.”

    True indeed… and you can count me as one of those persons. The empire argument as it has been currently employed is a biased and selective reading of empire. If one wants to be consistent, one has to not only ask the “empire question” in reference to an aggressive and over-reaching foreign policy, but also an aggressive and over-reaching domestic policy as well.

    I think empire language has its place in our current discussion of politics, but it has also been overblown and has also been made to serve a certain political agenda rather than to help clarify our current geo-political situation.

  • Peter

    I have found Gorman’s reading very helpful: extremely practical to recognize Empire not merely as the US government or multinational corporations but anything that demands my allegiance, particularly those values that insinuate themselves into my belief system that may very well contradict values of the Kingdom. Examples include safety, security and related precautions that require much of our financial and emotional resources and seriously undermine our faith. Other examples related to nationalism and patriotism could hardly be overstated.

  • Richard

    While the “empire of America” talk has died down in some circles, I still think it’s a reality and actually more dangerous now because it’s less overt. The USA has somewhere between 4-5000 military bases domestically and 800-1000 in foreign nations.

    I appreciate Mark Farmer’s point regarding multinational corporations as well but while they’re threatening I’m not sure they receive sacred power and devotion from their consumers (well, except for MAC users ;-)). But on reading that sentence over again, maybe that’s the subtlety of idolatry?

  • Rick

    Richard-

    “The USA has somewhere between 4-5000 military bases domestically and 800-1000 in foreign nations.”

    But does that equal “empire”?

    Are some (many, most?) of those bases welcomed and appreciated?

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    I guess my thought is essentially this: the US (state or economy) doesn’t have to be an empire to be an idol. Plus, this puts the focus not on the state for being ‘good government’ vs. ‘evil empire’ but rather on us for how we are relating to the state/economy, which seems more the point of Revelation. Similar to money, it is not an inherent evil, but the loyalty to it, love of it, is a serious problem. In this vein, we can ask all kinds of questions:
    - whose laws/demands trump? (I wonder here especially about the treatment of ‘enemies’ of the individual or state, foreign or domestic)
    - who plays the larger formational role? (Whom do we serve most?)
    - in whose action do we place our hope?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I would like to add one more to his list of American Civil Religion that I don’t think is covered in #1 American Exceptionalism, and that is:

    5. Individual Entitlement – The people of the nation somehow assume that they should have a better quality of life than others and it is appropriate to take from others to sustain that quality of life.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    ….to expound on my #11, I am not talking about poor taking from the rich in our country, I am talking about the rich in our country taking from the poor elsewhere. Somehow this concept has been co-opted by the rich here to show how they should not help the poor, yet the opposite is true.

  • Kevin

    Great topic and discussion, but I have to take issue with the numbers being tossed around as to the total of domestic and international military bases utilized by the United States. I would love to see some documentation for these numbers. I believe, based upon a brief search through the resources available on line, that the true number of all combined bases is about a thousand. Willing to be proven wrong.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @DRT, #12: /yes and worse, most Americans are blissfully unaware of this truth, workers around the world (and even immigrants in the U.S. undergoing harsh conditions that no American would endure, for subsistence wages) who don’t even earn enough to purchase the goods they make, at a cost to the corporate entities that comprise a small, minute fraction of a percent…

    @Rick, #9: those bases might be welcomed by foreign government leaders and large business entities, but from my study (see Chalmers Johnson extensive writing on the topic) are generally resented by the populations.

    I’ve worked at high levels of corporation and church, and I have noted that most full time church (and university) leaders have little clue of the entanglement of the corporation and state leviathan. No, it’s not a concerted conspiracy, it’s the result of the way things have played out on the global stage — the total commodification of humanity. It’s not all to the detriment of mankind — it delivers us cheap electronic doodads, agri-econ that supports more mouths and cheaper prices, etc.… but on the flipside, engineers a most undemocratic power structure that not only exercises control, but invests great resources in shielding you from even noting the injustices propagated.

  • Rick

    Naum-

    “those bases might be welcomed by foreign government leaders and large business entities, but from my study (see Chalmers Johnson extensive writing on the topic) are generally resented by the populations.”

    I appreciate your response, but I still wonder if that equals “empire”.

    Gorman’s description is: “by means of the extreme exercise of some form(s) of power resulting in the creation of colony-like clients of the entity and of enemies who perceive the entity as oppressive.”

    If the hosting government does not see it as oppressive, does that make it fall under the empire category?

    Likewise, populations may reset our bases, but do they see them as “oppressive”?

  • James

    I find the idea of “America as Empire” a bit thin. While it can be argued that the United States has been over zealous in our desire to impart Human Liberty and Rights to nations that may or may not want our brand of that, a look at recent history dispels the notion that America is an oppressive Empire bent on expansion and domination. When the terrible dust of World War II settled we were the last man standing. America possessed the Atomic Bomb, a weapon no other nation had at that time, our military was without equal and certainly capable of World domination. It was a near perfect set of circumstances for an Empire to bring the nations of the earth under subjection but we chose not to do that but instead rebuilt those we vanquished.
    Gorman seems to infer that American Exceptionalism and Patriotism has evolved into a form of Islamic Extremism.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    @Rick, #15, because the “hosting government” is deferential to the American government (or more accurately, the western union of corporation and state) even to the detriment of its own citizens, for which many nations are not democratic structures. Bribes to foreign officials to allow and permit that which would be unthinkable in our nation.

    Consider for a moment how you as an American would feel if a foreign power was permitted to launch drone missiles and target U.S. citizens without any “due process” whatsoever. Or even engage in development projects that bankrupt the nation which then leads to IMF / World Bank demands for “austerity” while the government officials pocket bribes and further ensconce themselves in gated enclaves? Or channel significant populations to be “guest workers” and migrate to richer states as temporary labor, with little rights and heaps of injustice? Or witness crimes committed by those “guests” covered up and/or absolved without justice being served?

    Again, refer you to the excellent writing of Chalmers Johnson (and formerly in the pay of the CIA) on the matter.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I would like to hear Julie Clawson’s take on this.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    I had the great privilege of being part of Michael Gorman’s Revelation class which he taught here at Duke Divinity last year. One of the more important classes I think I have had. Not only is he a great professor and exegete, but an even better man.

    As a student pastor in a rural Methodist church in NC, I have seen first hand how this “empire” will not go quietly, or easily.

  • Jim H.

    In discussing America’s Empire you need to go back to Manifest Destiny; the domination and subjugation of whole people groups e.g. Andrew Jackson’s Indian policy and explicit ignoring of Supreme Court decisions regarding Indian’s land, etc.; the US-Mexican War, etc. etc. Post WWII expansion is better known. US policy in Latin America, Iran in the 50′s; US support of Israel; Bush in Iraq and now Obama in Afghanistan and Pakistan are just the latest manifestations.

    Of course, the US is an Empire and we are all complicit in it. Seems to me that’s the whole point of Revelation. You can either be a cheerleader for “Rome” or belong to God and thus become a martyr. There just doesn’t appear to be much gray area.

  • Rick

    Naum-

    Interesting article, and I certainly would not argue that the US is perfect (Jim H. #20 points out some of those ugly aspects).

    However, the article you linked to does not show that “oppression” is the cause of the resentment, nor that the US is trying to be oppressive. Instead, the problems as mainly due to various situations that took place. Again, I am not sure it meets Gorman’s definition.

    Finally, when do attempts at national defense become equated with empire? Jim H. mentioned Afgan and Pak. Are those really attempts at expanding empire, or they simply attempts to prevent future attacks on US citizens?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    @Jim H.#20 – I took a rather thorough American History course this year and was surprised at the degree of aggression we as a country exhibit. We truely have been relentlessly out there trying to dominate others for mostf our existance (and prior to our existance). BTW, I took the course to help cope with the far right who, in the words of the OP, “3. Reinterpretation of the culture’s dominant religious traditions — colonizing religion into culture and State.” I wanted to be able to tell what is true…

  • http://www.tarunstevenson.com TRS

    “One could argue that such readings not only appeared during the Bush era but are now on their decline because Bush is gone. In other words, some are arguing that anti-empire readings are simply anti-American or anti-Bush or anti-Republican or anti-capitalist readings.”

    Empire readings of Revelation are certainly not new and appeared long before the Bush era. Scholars such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Adela Yarbro Collins liken Empire more to Western capitalism and democracy which although not exclusive to, does extend to the USA.

    As the propaganda of western capitalism and free trade has spread its reach to the ends of the earth, Christians in the west find themselves in a challenging and often compromising position. On one hand we profess a faith that calls us to liberate the poor, to unmask in-justice, to dispense mercy and liberation, yet in almost every area of our lives we unwittingly participate in the oppression of others through our desire for excess and our consumption of the spoils of westernized capitalism.

    While it could be argued that we do not live in a political Empire, we do live in, participate in and enjoy the comfort of living in a power structure that uses oppression of others to benefit it’s citizens. Living in a country (Australia) which affords freedom of religion and endorses a life style of capitalism, it is easy for the values of the church to blend with that of the state. The challenge that John issues us, that we examine our values in light of Christ. If they clash with that of the Empire (Power Structure) we live in, then we must, stand up against in-justice, even if it come at the expense of our own comfort. For John the believer who stands against tyranny and compromise, will be vindicated by Christ at the fullness of time, but for those that would ignore the call, the judgment awaiting will be sever.

  • Jeff L

    Of course the US is an empire. Early American leaders weren’t afraid to use this term; Thomas Jefferson, for example, spoke of building an “empire of liberty,” an oxymoron if there ever was one.

    In their more candid moments, contemporary American leaders admit the US is an empire. Witness the stunning arrogance in a comment made by a Bush administration official to journalist Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The hubris is breath-taking.

  • Rick

    “Thomas Jefferson, for example, spoke of building an “empire of liberty,”

    How dare him! Wanting to promote liberty. Yuck. He is the worst.

  • Jim H.

    To #21 I wish I could still believe our foreign expansion really was about protecting American lives. Ignorance is bliss. . . wish I didn’t read so much.

    To Rick #24 perhaps you should ask all the peoples we’ve oppressed, both here and abroad about how much “liberty” they’ve experienced. I’m sure the other side does not share your sarcasm, they’re just stuck with the after=effects of American’s Empire building

  • Daniel

    JeffL@ 23, lol. Almost as breathtaking as a recent presidental candidate who confidently noted that his election was going to lead to the seas reversing and the planet healing itself. Must be something in the water for politicians to have such high views of themselves.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    re: #24 and 26,
    I’m not sure hyperbole is very helpful.

  • Daniel

    Oh Chad, have sense of humor. It’s Christmas.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    Daniel, of course. Just to ease your concern over the presence of humor in my laugh, I can assure you I laughed at the absurdity of your comment in #26. However, being Christmas (as you pointed out), I thought it more merry of me to point out the unwarranted and unjustified hyperbole in your comment rather than call you on fanciful fabrications or flat out falsities used to legitimate and sanction your own political ideology.

    But the latter is not very funny :)

  • Rick

    Chad-

    Sorry if I was over-the-top with #24. I am just seeing some extreme piling-on, and little middle ground or third way discussion.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    Rick,
    No worries. I know all too well how sensitive of a topic this is, and I am learning the hard way. 2 years ago I wrote an article on my blog that I shared with my church about pledging allegiance (it can be found here: http://chadholtz.net/2010/06/28/i-pledge-allegiance-2/

    Only now, upon my 4th and final review as their pastor, did I hear how much this effected several in the congregation in a negative sense. While I do not regret pushing these buttons (which needed pushing) I am aware of how it can be heard from both sides and am trying to do better.

  • Daniel

    So Chad, what ideology would that be? Will you now claim you have no ideology in this discussion? Of we want to get all offended here, I am offended that you say I am fabricating things. I heard the candidate I cited with my own ears. Nothing made up at all. You may disagree with me but I am not a liar.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    Ok, Daniel. Merry Christmas.

  • Daniel

    Chad @34, merry Christmas, brother.

  • Jeff L

    Rick #25
    Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” had no room for slaves, freed blacks, women of any color, and Native Americans. That’s why an oxymoron.

  • Rick

    Jeff L. #36-

    No doubt Jefferson had his issues. I just think we need to step back a bit and put the US/Empire discussion in perspective.

  • Richard

    @ Rick, Kevin

    Documentation for base estimates: http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2009baseline.pdf

    5,570 sites under authority of DOD, not counting installations under control of contractors.

    An empire doesn’t necessitate colonization (though McBranding, Coke, the NBA, and MTV have exported US culture to the globe very well), military sites do just as well to exert influence – whether they’re welcome or not is irrelevant to whether or not it is an empire.

    Based on Gorman’s criteria for empire, I think the US is an empire. Is there other criteria you would offer up that the US doesn’t meet?

  • Rick

    Richard-

    You wrote: “An empire doesn’t necessitate colonization”

    But according to Gorman: “…resulting in the creation of colony-like clients”. It would appear that the colony issue is a factor.

    You wrote: “whether they’re welcome or not is irrelevant to whether or not it is an empire.”

    But according to Gorman: “who perceive the entity as oppressive.” So “welcoming” is a factor.

    There appear to be some differences between you and Gorman.

    Likewise, I don’t know if exerting influence is equal to oppression.

    I am open to correction, but just have not yet seen how the US has met that empire threshold. It the US faulty? Yes. Has it done terrible things? Yes. Does it have wide influence and impact? Clearly.

    But does it meet Gorman’s definition of empire? Not yet.

  • http://Www.tarunstevenson.com Trs

    some interesting insight into US military spending. Empire or not, sounds like someones defending a national interest with an excessive ammount of military force – http://nyti.ms/fv2e0t


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