10 November 2008

The ‘blessings’ of empire? Part 2

Here is the second and final instalment of my series on the American empire. It appears in the 10 November issue of Christian Courier.

Because we have come to see empire in almost wholly negative terms, we may have difficulty recalling a time when empire – and a Christian empire at that – was considered nearly an unmitigated good. Both Byzantine rulers and the heirs of Charlemagne in the west were rivals for the imperial title, which had its origins in ancient Rome. When Rome fell in 476, many of its subjects greatly regretted this event, because it spelled the end of an orderly rule of law over the Mediterranean basin and the dawn of a much more precarious political existence.

For all its faults, which were considerable, the Roman Empire provided stability for hundreds of years by keeping the peace throughout its far-flung territory. Indeed its laws, as codified by the eastern emperor Justinian in the 6th century, provided the basis for the legal systems of continental Europe and elsewhere.

When the apostle Paul and his companions were imprisoned in Macedonia, he would reveal their Roman citizenship to demonstrate that they had been illegally scourged by the civil magistrates (Acts 16:37-40). Later Paul would take the opportunity of his capture by the local authorities in Jerusalem to appeal to Caesar, which he had the right to do.

To the church in Rome Paul wrote that Christians are to be “subject to the governing authorities,” which “have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Similarly, Peter instructed his readers to obey the political authorities and to honour the emperor (I Peter 2:13-17). Both understood that political authority has a crucial and God-given function to play in human life and that, even when it goes wrong or miscarries justice in particular circumstances, it nevertheless continues in large measure to maintain public justice.

Whether this authority takes the form of the early Israelite tribal judges, or the later Davidic monarchy or an emperor ruling over a large land mass, God has called it “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” Believers are similarly called to obedience, though not uncritically. Just as the apostles obeyed God above mere human authorities (Acts 4:19; 5:29), so should we be wary of the overreaching claims of all institutions, including the state.

Is America an empire? I would give a qualified yes to this question. As the world’s most powerful state, it makes decisions that affect countless people around the globe, including Canadians. Yet this is not the whole story. Just over two centuries ago Americans originated, as a deliberate alternative to the unitary imperial state, the federal system with its constitutional division of powers. This arrangement has worked so well that it has been copied by others, including Canada, Australia and India.

Even when the United States is at less than its best, Canadians should prefer living next to it over being adjacent to, say, Russia, which is renewing its old habit of bullying its neighbours, whether militarily or by withholding its natural resources. We are often in the habit of complaining about US actions at home and abroad. But the fact is that we do so with nearly complete impunity. We can easily get away with it, unlike Georgia vis-à-vis Russia. No matter how much the American government may be annoyed with us, we know that its troops will not be spilling over our borders any time soon. For this we can rightly be thankful.

Although an empire is tempted to abuse its considerable power, the fact of one nation exercising more influence than another is not itself a violation of justice. Nevertheless, other nations are well advised to be vigilant in their dealings with it, to ensure that its power is adequately checked.

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