Imperial ambitions are the disease of nations. Empire arises from the desire to protect and provide the good for a people, city, or state. Ancient Israel faced one after another and survived. Now we see Russia ready to renew imperial ambitions just after the United States lost face in Afghanistan. Israel’s experience is the witness of the utter futility of empires.
The Hebrew Scriptures remind us that God is greater than the gods of empires. The last plague that breaks the resolve of Pharaoh is the Passover. God tells Moses, “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments.” The judgment was not only about freeing the Israelites. It was also about divine judgment against everything Egypt represented.
Egypt’s empire was not destroyed that night. It continued until another arose to replace it. Israel experienced the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Alexander and his generals, and Rome. They each took tribute and grew their wealth. We can see some of their monuments today.
The major European powers saw themselves as the heirs of Rome’s empire. The German Empire under the Kaiser and the Russian under the Tsar were meant to be successors of Caesar. Moscow was once referred to as the New Rome. The empire continues in different forms with different cities.
The Passover narrative reminds us that empires are about divinities. Europe’s empires since Rome claimed God gave divine right to kings and emperors. These were lesser divinities. John Wesley, for instance, could not understand why the American colonists would rebel against a Christian king. The ruler was the divine image of God and bore authority from God. The theological understanding of political order is as old as civilization. We see it at work in the East as well as the West. Both Plato and Confucius held ideal states reflected the order of Heaven.
Citizens and subjects are led to believe the success of the nation are tied to reflecting the heavenly image. A rival nation does not reflect the divine image and is therefore without God. German soldiers in the First World War knew God was with them. Their grandsons knew God was with them the second time too. Defeat is always bewildering when the assurance fails to bring victory. Western Europe continues experiencing a decline in religious belief because of it.
Empires tend to destroy the freedom of their citizens. What first appears as a desire to control the action of a neighboring state becomes an attitude of controlling all neighbors. The control is necessary to reflect the heavenly image. Jesus called for his disciples to walk away from controlling bonds. The Temple tax is paid for him by a miracle (Matthew 17:24-27) He avoided all family ties that kept him from his work. Control is the attitude of those with imperial ambitions.
The desire of empire is to control the spirit of people. Idolatry is a means of controlling the spirit of people. Jeroboam the son of Nebat set up the golden calves at Dan and Bethel for that purpose. “Now the kingdom will revert to the house of David. If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will return to their master” So he gives the following address to the people. “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:27-28) The new calves are set up for their sake, he claims. They are delivered from going to Jerusalem just as they were delivered from Egypt. The people of the Northern Kingdom were not aware of his real motive.
Freeing the Spirit
Jesus taught his disciples to set their spirits free from the idols. It is hard to do. People are easily duped into giving up their spiritual freedom. I have spent an entire career watching it happen over and over again. Yet, I am hopeful that we will get past the latest authoritarian turn. We will do so by keeping our minds and spirits free.