For me, and most people I know, the word “empire” has a negative connotation. As well it should. The economic and military might of human empires has been one of the most destructive forces in history. From the genocidal campaigns of Genghis Khan to the modern day invasions of Iraq, the prerogative of empires is to establish their power through conquest and domination. In the process, they’ve destroyed the lives of billions.
The early Christian communities knew this. The ancient church lived under Roman occupation – first as Jews in Roman Palestine, and eventually as people of all tribes and tongues throughout the Roman Empire. The first Christians experienced first hand the deadly power of empire. Jesus was tortured and executed at the hands of the Roman legion. Many of the most dedicated saints were martyred by Caesar or his local representatives.
The earliest followers of Jesus had every reason to reject empire. They saw on a daily basis how the powers distort the image of God in humanity. The power of the Roman state enforced conformity to a worldview that was profoundly twisted, life-denying, and oppressive. Caesar and his minions directed worship to themselves, rather than to the one true God of love whom Jesus reveals. In the midst of this suffocating atmosphere of state violence, the disciple community composed and circulated the Book of Revelation, one of the most powerful denunciations of human empire ever written.
Yet the Christian tradition also embraces the language of empire. Throughout the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, the power of God is presented in imperial terms. Even Jesus, who was murdered by Caesar’s army, is fashioned a conquering king, come to establish an empire of peace and justice without end. The many of the titles that the church uses for Jesus – such as “lord”, “messiah,” and “savior of the world” – are firmly rooted in the vocabulary of imperial rule. In Jesus, we are presented with a leader who overcomes the powers and principalities of human empire, conquering death and oppression with the legions of love.
This framing is strange for someone like me, who has always assumed that empire is simply evil. Why would a good and loving God be described in imperial terms? Could even empire play a role in God’s vision? If God in Jesus has created everything for a helpful purpose, perhaps it is only our twisting of God’s good creation that has turned empire into a destructive force.
God created empire as a positive good. That sounds crazy, I know. But consider this: Would we really want a world without empire? Do we want a society without a central source of governance and authority? Would we prefer that every man, woman, and child be forced to fend for themselves – survival of the fittest? Even pacifists like me are sometimes grateful for the presence of police.
All empires derive their authority from the promise of bringing order to a chaotic world. This is why human beings have embraced dictators, warlords, kings, and parliaments for as long as we have a written record. Despite the terrible track record of human power structures, we tend to think that the order and stability they provide are worth the cost.
What God offers us in Jesus is a holy center of power and justice who can resolve the hostilities and divisions among people and nations. In Jesus we find the emperor that we’ve all been waiting for – one who rules the nations in justice and establishes real peace wherever he reigns. In him, all things hold together. Out of chaos and confusion, he brings order – and joy.
In the United States, and in nations around the world, we are presently experiencing a crisis of empire. The structures of authority that once seemed stable have become increasingly shaky. We don’t know where to turn for strength, vision, and direction. We are looking for leaders we can trust – men and women who will re-establish an empire based on justice, care for those on the margins, and peace with our neighbors. In a moment like this, we have a great opportunity to point to Jesus as the leader we’ve been longing for. He is present to lead us, if we are ready to follow him.
What would it mean to invite Jesus to be president of our communities, our culture, our nation? What would it look like to live as part of the empire of peace, righteousness, and social justice that he promises? What if empire is just what we need?