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The Waning Days

These are not the waning days of the American Empire, as some of my neo-monastic, Hauerwasian Mafia friends like to tout them.  They’re not because — now read this closely — the United States is not an empire.

I know, it’s all the rage right now among progressive Christians to say that we are an empire.  But we’re not.  An empire has, by definition, an emperor.  As frustrated as you may be by the malicious buffoonery of the Bush-Cheney oligarchy, they do not represent an emperor.  Exhibit A: They won’t be in office as of January 20.  In fact, it looks as though they will have virtually no power in the governance of the United States as of that date (unlike, for instance, Vladimir Putin, who set himself up as prime minister of Russia after constitutional term limits ended his presidency).

I was a classics major in college (geez, I hate it when people tell me that what they majored in during college makes them an expert in that topic), and I lived in Rome.  I know how and why the Roman Empire fell, and it did, indeed, have a lot to do with office of emperor and the abuses inherent thereto.

We, on the other hand, are about to elect a new president.  And with an Obama presidency (barring some unforeseen tragedy), there will be thoroughgoing housecleaning in Washington.  This is what never happened in Rome.  Julius Caesar, who overcame the other two members of the Triumvirate, ruled Rome pretty well.  His adopted heir, Augustus (nee Gaius Octavius) was arguably the greatest ruler of that empire.  And from there it was pretty much downhill (with notable exceptions).  Why?  Graft.  Immorality.  And the “divine right of kings.”

These are the very things that, centuries later, the social contract theory of John Locke overcame, and that the American Republic reacted against.  Now, it can surely be argued about whether the U.S. is really a representative democracy or a republic, etc.  But the U.S. can simply not be considered an empire in the governance sense of the word.

But I know that many of the aforementioned neo-monastic Hauerwasians are concerned less with the US government and more about the imperial nature of the US economy.  I agree with them insofar as free market capitalism, no longer curbed by Calvinism, has no moral impediment to unmitigated greed.  Capitalism worked when the “Protestant work ethic” was its engine, but it works less well when it’s primarily driven by speculation and greed.  This is surely a problem that we’ve got to face.

But free-market capitalism run amok is not an American problem.  It’s a global problem.  Iceland’s banks are frozen because a few investors gambled more than the entire country even has.  Maybe the US invented capitalism on a massive scale, but the bird has flown the coop.  Globalization has made these attacks on the US economy in particular moot.

We are in the waning days, but not of the American empire, because there is no such thing.  We’re in the waning days of a particular economic model.  Thank God we’ve got a better form of government than an Empire to sort this mess out.

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  • Tony,

    I took civics in high school, I have played EMPIRE on the XBox – so I know a bit about empires myself.

    Honestly, I think you are sorta…um…wrong here. The source of all knowledge – Wikipedia – defines an empire as:
    a state that extends dominion over populations distinct culturally and ethnically from the culture/ethnicity at the center of power. Scholars still debate about what exactly constitutes an empire, and other definitions may emphasize economic or political factors.

    Empire contrasts with the example of a federation, where a large or small multi-ethnic state – or even an ethnically homogeneous one – relies on mutual agreement amongst its component political units which retain a high degree of autonomy. Additionally, one can compare physical empires with potentially more abstract or less formally structured hegemonies in which the sphere of influence of a single political unit (such as a city-state) dominates a culturally unified area politically or militarily. A second side of this same coin shows in potentially inherent tactics of divide and conquer by different factions (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) and central intervention for the greater whole’s benefit.

    Compare also the concept of superpowers and hyperpowers. (Some commentators have seen the British Empire as a hyperpower,[1][2] in its heyday as the largest empire in world history (covering about one quarter of the Earth’s land surface) with established political, economical, financial, and scientific hegemony over the whole world.)

    What constitutes an empire is subject to wide debate and varied definitions. An empire can be described as any state pursuing imperial policies, can be defined traditionally, or can be examined as a political structure. And in some cases the term “Empire” is also used when a ruler takes the title of “Emperor”, even though the country involved has no other real reason to be considered an empire (for example, the short-lived “Central African Empire”).


    To boil this down to the demise of a certain economic model seems awfully narrow. Now I was a marketing major in college, so maybe I am a bit too biased, but America is suffering from far more than an over-reach in capitalism.

    I’d really encourage you to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire. Zinn is an uncompromising critic of the imperial history of America, the unilateral deeds of our leaders, the atrocities committed by our military and its contractors through Asia, Africa, Europe, and around the world.

    I wonder if you are equating an imperial form of governance with the broader concept of an empire.

    Or maybe you are right and are just smarter than me.

  • Have you read Jesus Today by Albert Nolan? I first heard about the America as Empire idea from him, and thought it a pretty good argument. He is not a Hauerwasian, but a Catholic, Dominican priest, South African theologian, Jesus scholar, did some work in contextual theology during the Apartheid years. I wonder whether those from outside America, from outside the first world perspective, and from outside the Hauerwas influence, might bring a different view on the America as Empire idea.

  • Annie

    well…my dissertation about the Roman empire and I think you’re wrong and the people against whom you’re arguing are wrong. I think we’re at a point analogous to the transition between republic and empire. All we need is a charismatic leader to continue accruing power to the office of the president, building on the abuses perpetrated by Cheney and Bush. We’re at the beginning. Not the end.

    I think we should also remember that, given the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, if there is to be anything like an empire, it will need to carefully guard the fiction that it is not imperial at all. Really, that’s not so different from Augustus’s argument that he was restoring the republic to the people and the senate.

    Finally, let us not forget that the Augustus was, in fact, responsible for monumental acts of violence, war, and destruction. He is not to praised too highly.

  • um….

    what annie said

  • Oh, dear… it has almost come down to an ‘are you a pre-empire, post-empire, current-empire’ kinda debate. For the sake of reference I believe that all three are true.

    The empire word is a little bit of a loaded term that does freak people out.

    However, as a citizen of a vassal state of [the yet to come] empire, I would say that however you might name it, the influence that the USA culturally, economically, theologicially, scientifically, and (yes) politically cannot be understated. The world is waiting with baited breath as to whom may end up living in the White House. The fact that the presidential debates have been broadcast live in Australia on our national public broadcaster is an indicator of our concern.

    It is hard not to be cynical to the conclusion that whomever wins the presidential race – a US-born citizen [politician] will be living in the White House.

    I just hope for the sake of humanity that the people of the USA vote with the desire for justice and mercy – for the love of the world. Whomever gets elected, the people around the globe can only hope that the focus of the next president is of the same concern.

  • Great post, Tony. I agree wholeheartedly. And I also agree with all of the previous comments.

    When I think of the US as an empire, I’m thinking not as a classics major, but in a general kind of way. I think the US exercises a pervasive kind of cultural dominance (and the economic influence might be ‘exhibit A’ of that) that is felt around the world. It is in many ways good and welcome, and in others unappreciated and detrimental. But from where I sit, the rest of the world doesn’t have much choice in whether to accept or reject it.

  • Uh, I’m not too familiar with the so-called “Hauerwasian mafia” (gosh, what a tired moniker!) talking about the U.S. nation-state as an empire. If they do, they’re being very sloppy.

    I am, however, quite familiar with your buddy Jim Wallis mistakenly describing the United States as “the empire” (see http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0309&article=030910 ). Jim would do well to read a little Hardt & Negri, who made your point about a decade ago.

    And how is it that you can now lump together “Hauerwasian neomonastics” and “progressive Christians?” I thought “progressive” Constantinians of the left were your model of how NOT to be Hauerwasian? Now they’re the same thing? How exactly do your fuzzy categories work, Tony?

  • That said, there are others who tout the United States as an “empire” (who have no theological axes to grind). Niall Ferguson’s _Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire_ is an impassioned plea, from a Brit, for the United States to assume the responsibilities that attend it’s being an empire. More critically, Andrew Bacevich, in _The New American Militarism_, analyzed the U.S.’s ‘imperial’ forces not in terms of traditional colonialism (possession of territories) but in terms of military presence throughout the world via its unbelievable network of U.S. military and naval bases–little outposts dotting the globe.

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  • Did Calvinism ever hold free market capitalism in check?

  • A few thoughts:

    1) Bob’s right – having an emperor is not the sole, necessary, or even primary characteristic of what makes an Empire.

    2) Most of the folks I’ve read on this topic (cf. Colossians Remixed) aren’t pointing to America as “the Empire” per se. Most point to the larger system of global capitalism as “the Empire”. America is just one facet of it (though a rather large and influential one of course).

    3) You’re taking the “Empire” thing too literally. It’s an analogy, a metaphor – and a useful at that, IMHO. Of course there are some differences between our situation and the Roman Empire (though lets not forget that Rome is not the only empire we could potentially compare ourselves to), but there are similarities too. I think it’s still useful to ask ourselves “I what ways are we becoming like an empire?”

  • “And with an Obama presidency … there will be thoroughgoing housecleaning in Washington.”

    If by this you mean something other than displays of “Democrat GOOD, Republican EVIL!” I’m skeptical. My skepticism is not rooted in Obama, but in the lack of seeing it happen in the past. But then I guess that’s why you’ve gotten more involved in a campaign than I have. I’m happy you’re less cynical and hope you can stay that way.

  • Just to echo and reinforce what has already been said (either implicitly or explicitly):

    Most of us neo-Anabaptist radicals that use the word “empire” will usually use it for the global consumer-capitalist system that is, of course, tied to certain nations and military engagements (like Iraq). You are right to encourage folks to use the word “empire” mostly in regards to this global phenomenon that transcends one particular nation-state.

    But the word “empire” can also be used in regards to the USA. The word is flexible. In the past, US presidents have even used the word “empire” to refer to the US. The British have a richer history of using the word self-referentially, even though they themselves don’t have an emperor.

    This is an issue that I’ve explore in an article on Jesus Manifesto (www.jesusmanifesto.com/2008/01/22/is-american-an-empire). Basically, America is an empire because it reigns over a number of nations (most notably, the Native American tribes), has well-over 700 bases around the world, has practiced interventionism in the affairs of other nations, has a history of expansionism, and still holds a number of territories.

    While the U.S. President isn’t an emperor…he DOES have the power to move troops as well, often in an imperial way.

  • Mark Begemann


    Thanks for the informed and refreshing perspective. You really made me think harder about the ways in which we are like an empire and how we are not. I don’t feel quite so dirty now! (Yes, even after reading all of the comments.)

    Grace and peace,

  • But if Cheney calls us an empire – http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2003/Cheney-Empire-Christmas24dec03.htm
    would that not make us such???

    And of course the good dispensationalists in the crowd know that the Roman empire never actually fell… or else their interpretation of Daniel would be way off…

    (sorry, it’s late and I’m feeling way more snarky than thoughtful at the moment…)

  • Jonathan Walker

    I don’t think the problem is with free market capitalism. The US has always been a mixed economic system and one can argue that we have been moving farther and farther away from free markets over the past few decades. For example, the government forcing banks to lend money to risky borrowers through the “Community Reinvestment Act” is quite far from a free market, so I don’t think that it is fair to blame this on free market capitalism when we haven’t been operating in a free market it quite some time. I mean the centralization of credit to the FED is taken directly from plank 5 of the communist manifesto.

    The problem, no matter what the system, is greed. We can see this even in Marxist or communist states.

  • I have been following the emerging movement with great interest for some time now, and found this post to be interesting–and quite balanced.

    A few thoughts:

    I live in Latin America (Brazil) and we have to put up with Hugo Chavez (neighbor to the north) and his ilk. His “Bush is the antichrist” speel is ironic for just the reason you mentioned: for better or worse Bush will be out of office on the 20th of January…Chavez will not.

    Your comment about Calvinism tempering the greed inherent in capitalism was very astute, I think. Would not it behoove us to invest in a return to Calvinist attitudes of our forebears…or do you feel that this is a ship that has sailed.

    I would challenge your confidence that Obama will clean things up. Democrats thought Clinton would clean things up. Didn’t happen. Republicans thought Bush would clean things up. Didn’t happen. Other than the fact that you are campaigning for him, what gives you ANY reasonable certainty that Obama will clean things up?

  • tony arens

    Mark – The War Powers Resolution of 1973 ( limits the power of the President to wage war without the approval of the Congress. He or she cannot move troops in an imperial way, you silly.

    Yes, I do believe Obama will do some serious housecleaning, but I fear that he will replace old ugly corruption with a fancy post-modern form of corruption, but hey! It’s CHANGE!

    Jonathan hits the nail on the head – greed is the key.

  • Thought provoking Tony, but to be honest are you not going a bit far to say that you “know why the Roman empire fell”? Since Gibbons massive work, as you know, there has been much debate on what exactly made Rome fall. When most people today refer to us as an empire they are not using it in the classical, “we have an emperor” sense. As you say it refers to the gross Imperialism we’ve exhibited which has numerous strikingly similar characteristics to Rome. But empire is also a metaphor used through the biblical narrative to kenote the amassing of wealth and military might with the desire to “rule the world.” Certainly this is our current U.S. (and arguably our historical) posture towards the nations of the world.

    I’ve found Revelation 18 and 19 quite appropriate for our current situation as I have been co-teaching through the book within my church community. Not that Revelation’s Babylon was predicting American empire. But that Babylon becomes the metaphor for corrosive power and John tells us in brilliant political satire what it looks like so we can name it.

    Our biggest problem is corporatism and our leaning towards facism. But most recently Stan Hauerwas of Hauerwasian mafia fame pointed out that we don’t have a “pure democracy” as so many presume when they throw around “freedom” and “democracy.” We have plutocracy.

    Hopefully Barack Obama as a political leader can build a team around him, dare I say, organize a community around him of political representatives who can turn the ship around.

  • Listening to all everyone has to say I think we should acknowledge that the Roman empire is not necessarily the “model” empire, and that everything after that (and before?) should fit exactly into it’s category to be called an empire. Just because the president doesn’t loop like an emperor doesn’t mean that empire isn’t a good description of the US.

  • bob c

    can i retract my earlier comments ?

    pat buchana agrees with me:


    I am gonna go take a shower now.

  • Great thoughts!

    It really is such a comfort to know that we have something so much better than what the world is offering us right now.

  • Nowaytess

    I did not know the election held? When did Obama win?

    I belive you are all going to be in for a big surprise when John Mc Cain is in office instead of Obama. For me I will be glad when Obama is defeated once and for all!

    Left always make the one fatal mistake and history is about to repeat itself.

    I never listen to polls. Or the Media for most of it is in the tank for Obama. They have been wrong in the past. Kerry according to the polls in 2004 was suppose the be President according to the polls. Kerry is not President today.

    Sadly, i fear in my life time the Far left will get in power to experiment with socialism/communisum. I travel over to Poland in 1985 and live there for a while in 1988. I got a good taste of what that part of the world was like before the iron curtian came down. I was glad to be home in America where I could say what I was and worship where I wanted.

    I fear Mc Cain will just hold these guys off for another 4 years. I am not a hugh Mc Cain supporter I just don”t want the world view Obama offers.

    For years I used to speak to the Socialst when they set up at Harvard, and BU campus.

    Progressive Liberal don’t understand the “politcial lovers” the church leaders are courting on the left make no bones on how they hate religion. Once they use the left church for its own means they dump you.

    Hitler ideas were not sellable to the German Public when when thier economy down turned after WWI Hitler used the Christian Chruch to gain power. He had no problem using it or abusing it after SS gain power.

    Progressives many not full understanding that if you don’t like your little experiment in Socialism/Communism Liberal won’t be able to discard, sue it or vote it out. You won’t be able to get rid of it as easy as you think.

    You will in vastly differenet America that you see today.

    You have to understand the Left is going to make the same mistake as the Right. Learn from the right Political leaders serve only themselves. Bilblehad it right from day when the Nation of Israel mixed in with the political powers of thier time to History when the Christian Church went political. God call it Harlotry and rightfully so.

    One prayer I have for both the left and the right, we come together as one body of Christ.

    Left may have more education and thumb it nose down those on the right. Right just feel it is more rightogus and look down their nose on the Left. I just wonder when will this bickering end?

    I wonder when I arrive to the great white throne seat , will it make a difference if I am left or right? I wonder if Jesus died just for his Church to Bicker like this?

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  • jim

    I posted this comment on another site discussing this:

    I would suggest that the “god” of our empire…and that the US is just one part of a larger empire of globalism as you seem to suggest – is of course not the President, but the unquestioned “god” of consumer capitalism.

    After all, in the end I think we can attribute Obama’s rise in recent weeks, in what normally would have been a hotly contested election, primarily to our concern about our pocketbooks…just because we don’t have an emperor in physical manifestation doesn’t mean we don’t have a “god” that we all serve.

  • so… theology based on enlightenment based ideologies and assumptions are suspect, but political orders based on the same assumptions deserve an apology?

    And as a loosely affiliated member of the over tagged hauerwas mafia I am less concerned with what america is (empire, pre-empire etc.) and more concerned with the church being identifiable.

    I think this is why I find emergent so helpful. In emergent communities there are tools to make a coherent church body.

  • zoecarnate

    Good post Tony…even if I agree with many of the nay-sayers here. 🙂 My agreement is stregnthened having spent a weekend at the Schools for Conversion training event at the Rutba House in Durham this weekend. I think the neo-monastics are onto something in a way that the rest of us can learn from.

  • Bill Cavanaugh has a great lecture called “The Empire of the Empty Shrine” which is worth a listen. (Oh, no, wait, he’s a card-carrying Hauerwasian mafioso…)

    And greed is not the only problem with free-market capitalism. It is the systematic creation of human (inhuman?) desires in order to keep markets expanding.

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  • Tony Jones recently posted an entry on his blog about why the United States is not an empire. The primary reason he gives is that “an empire has, by definition, an emperor,” and “the Bush-Cheney oligarchy … do not represent an emperor.”

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  • Jim

    Why not discuss how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. It might be more productive and even enlightening.
    Who cares if we are a nation or an empire. Our day in the sun is fading fast.