What “Empire” Adds

by Berry Friesen (February 1, 2016 post on Bible and Empire blog)

Does the word “empire” enter your conversations with friends, colleagues and family members?   Is it used in your place of worship?  Do you see it in the articles and books you read, the videos you watch?

When “empire” is part of your lexicon, here’s what also becomes part of your analytical framework.  

  1. An empire enforces its control of political, economic and social arrangements through its overwhelming capacity for violence—a capacity that can be deployed overtly or covertly, via highly sophisticated weapons or vicious death squads.  Dissenters may occasionally make a stand, but they are certain to be defeated or co-opted and integrated as role players into the imperial apparatus.  This superior capacity for violence is justified as “defense,” but within the context of empire is usually deployed to support expansion of control or to destroy a rival’s capacity to resist.  

“Empire” prompts us to examine critically whether military, intelligence and surveillance capacities are being deployed defensively or for purposes of expansion and control. 

  1. An imperial economy is acquisitive, constantly seeking cheaply acquired “outside” resources to drive desired levels of growth and prosperity.  Because an empire lacks the patience to strengthen and depend on the productivity of its traditional base, it neglects that base, which becomes less creative over time and more dependent on “outside” resources for prosperity.

“Empire” reminds us to pay attention to what fuels our economy and whether its prosperity is sustainable without taking advantage of “outside” resources. 

  1. An empire has no peer and thus is not accountable to anyone or anything, whether another nation, international law or its own constitution.  An empire may periodically portray itself as accountable through elections, but this is largely pretense meant to re-legitimize its violent and coercive practices.  

“Empire” encourages us to monitor the dynamics of accountability.  Are the elite held accountable for their crimes and failures?  Does the state live within limitations set by others? Do elections ever cause a change in direction? 

  1.  Though violence is a vital tool of an empire, its primary method of maintaining dominance is through the constant communication of public narratives that describe international events and how the world works.  These public narratives are imbued with religious and moral themes that legitimize the empire’s behavior in the world.  Most of all, these story lines serve to define the “reasonable” range of options for running the world, thereby marginalizing other points of view.  Within an empire, the thought of life without the empire is almost unimaginable. 

“Empire” makes us aware of public narratives, what is said and what isn’t said, and how those choices serve the interests of the ruling elite.

  1.  There is a tradition that subverts the myth that empire reduces violence, spurs prosperity and lifts the human spirit.  This tradition sees empire as a malevolent force, one that deliberately pits people against one another, traps us with false choices, and pillages Earth while portraying its own violence as a tragic but necessary part of human progress.   This tradition is particularly evident in the Bible, where the empire is portrayed as the great deceiver, idolater and oppressor.  

“Empire” puts us in touch with ancient sources of wisdom that describe empire as a great evil. These sources have endured through the centuries despite powerful efforts to suppress or obscure them.

Lastly, lest I be misunderstood, I acknowledge life includes many forces that are dominating:  parents, spouses, schools, employers, military service, etc.  Generally, however, each controls only a season of life and/or only a portion of our existence.  But an empire leaves its subjects with few avenues of escape; one cannot find an alternative by waiting a few years or moving to another town or country.  However long one waits, wherever one goes, the empire will be there defining how the world works.  

Furthermore, I acknowledge there is room for debate on the question of whether or not the US-led configuration of power (Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand and its corporate elite near the center; NATO members, Israel and their corporate elite in the second ring; a third ring consisting of a host of subordinate states and their corporate elite; and sundry militias, crime syndicates and terrorist groups in an outer ring) functions as an empire.  As discussed in chapter 6 of If Not Empire, What?, John K. Stoner and I think it does; many disagree.

Whatever your point of view regarding the current US-led configuration of power, you will find much value in adding “empire” to your analytical framework.