12 November 2007

Empire? Part two: The Empire Strikes Back

Even with all the progress that empires have the power to make, there seems to always be some bad mixed in with the good. All too often, the peace and prosperity of imperial domain are bought with blood, in the barrel of a gun, or the edge of a sword. At their very best, the empires of history have remained a steadying hand on world events, laying the groundwork, the foundation for peace and prosperity. At their worst, sometimes even these same empires have had a direct hand in the bloodshed, warfare, and economic oppression that has plagued mankind since history began. What then shall we do? Are we to accept all the good that empire gives us, overlooking the bad that may or may not happen as a result? Are we to fight against imperial domain, even when that domain has had a positive effect on humanity? Can we even argue that we are better off under the power and influence of empires?

In my last post, I covered a tiny sampling of what could be considered the positive influences of empire. There are many more examples of empires whose power and influence have affected a large number of people, have given them access to world trade, solid economic footing, improved health care and education, and in general an elevated quality of life.

However, as with many things, it seems that the good is followed in very short order by the bad. For every example we can find of an empire using it's influence to improve the quality of life for those under it's power, we can find just as many, and probably more, examples of gross abuses and negligent use of that power. Shortly after I had posted part one, my friend left a comment for me. His question was, "...at what cost?” Far too few people care to ask this question. I do not pretend or claim to have a definitive answer to that question, but I will explore the other side of the argument. Also, as a Christian, it is sometimes not enough to ask the cost of something, but to ask if we are willing and able to accept the cost. I fear that many people, Christians included, do not stop to ask these questions.

As I've said previously, the Roman road system is a marvel of engineering, able to swiftly unite the various provinces economically and militarily in a way never before seen in the world. But one can question whether the Huns, the Goths, and the Visigoths enjoyed the same view of Roman roads. It was these very roads that the Roman legions marched down, bringing nearly unprecedented military strength to bear on these barbarians, forcing them from their land and causing conflict that brought about the end of their way of life.

Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, was supposedly an era of peace and stability created when the Romans finally "ended" the threat of barbarian invasion. But that era was created by massive bloodshed, destruction of much of Europe and it's people groups. Even within the empire itself, the "peace" was not so peaceful, with assassinations and political mutinies being the order of the day. In retrospect, Pax Romana could be considered more a figment of the imagination of those who wished to capitalize on imperial power for their own ends, rather than an actual time of peace.

Great Britain, who established their empire through worldwide trade and naval power, could be considered benevolent in many areas of the world. To be sure, their influence is credited with bringing many tribal and aboriginal peoples into the modern era, with all the benefits of that modern era, such as economic viability, infrastructure creation, education, and protection from vandals.

But even with that empire, the "vandals" being protected against were often displaced landowners and others whose property was taken from them. The education program within the empire was one of the best in the world at the time, but was only open to those with the right connections. The creation of infrastructure was not motivated by any altruistic means, but a greedy economic motivation, that only served to better exploit the natural resources and indigenous population of the territory.

In India, the British East India Company was allowed, through shrewd financial dealings and it's own private army under the protection of the Crown, to manipulate and take advantage of the entire country of India. What started out as simply a trade company grew into it's own imperial domain, wresting control from the Indians from their own country, and finally turning it's power over to the British Crown, in effect making the Indian population not so loyal citizens of the empire.

In China, Great Britain went to war for the right to sell opium, destroying the population of China through attrition and drug abuse, and all the while squeezing the Chinese economy of all it was worth. Jeffrey Sachs, in his book The End of Poverty, compares this action to Columbia declaring war on the United States for the right to sell cocaine. China has only now begun to recover from the turmoil of the colonial and post-colonial era that followed.

If we are to consider America an empire, we must examine the imperial behavior of America. Our history is full of examples of poor stewardship and oppressive foreign policy. During the Cold War, we did everything in our power to destroy communism. Our beliefs and ideals led us to undermine socialist systems in any country we found them, so as to not allow the Soviet Union to gain any advantage over us.

The drama of the Cold War was played out in hundreds of tiny, backwater small conflicts and political dealings, none of which had the best interests of the involved populace in mind.

One can consider our failed attempts to influence the Caribbean, as well as numerous countries in Africa that were used as pawns in the global chess game of the Cold War. In the case of the Congo, and the country of Angola, Western interests led by the CIA assassinated political leaders and fomented and supported insurrection by armed thugs against established governments. These governments were relatively stable and transparent, but ideologically they were socialist, and were receiving aid and advice from the Soviet Union. Therefore, they were the enemy. Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea were also battlefronts in the Cold War, infused with American money and influence. After the Cold War, these political pawns across the globe were left to fend for themselves, stripped of nearly all the support we had provided. Of these countries, only Korea survived relatively intact. Vietnam is now making headway against the turmoil of the last sixty years, but we're back with more money and influence in Iraq in Afghanistan, fighting the very people we helped fight Soviet domination just a few decades ago. This present situation we find ourselves in, the Global War on Terror, is seen by many as simply the same old political chess game played during the Cold War. In fact, it is not. I believe there are key differences between our conduct then and our conduct now. But that should be a different post.

This post is under the heading of Bible stuff, and it really doesn't sound like it. But it is. Our church recently did a study in narrative theology. This idea demonstrates the Bible as one huge, overarching story that stems from Creation to the End, showing God's plan throughout human history, and how humanity is growing and progressing within that story with all the little intertwining stories that make up our lives. There were four main points to the story; one could almost call them chapters, or acts. One of these "acts" was titled Egypt. Within this act we get an explanation of our fallen condition, and we see what happens when humans live outside of God's plan. The phrase that Pastor Rob kept using was "Empire is what happens when sin builds up steam." The dominion of sin, the desire of humanity to not follow God's way, will always end up in slavery, oppression, and exploitation.

If we are willing to accept the bad with the good, as sort of a "manifest destiny" of humanity, then we are no better than the ones who are pulling the political strings. We are no better than the assassin, or the secret agent who topples a government to further his country's political agenda.

I think it can be demonstrated that worldly power is too often expressed by oppression and exploitation of others. Imperial power is gained only at the expense of someone or something else.

We cannot accept this as Christians. It is not right.


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