Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Imperial Security Story

Part 3 in my discussion of David Korten's Alternative Radio speech based on The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Communities....

My first reaction was that I didn't have much to say about the "imperial security story." It seemed like such a banal critique of the current American situation with names removed in a weak attempt to claim it as a universal feature of empire. But after giving it just a very little bit more reflection, I can't believe I thought that.

True, in our current political climate the fear of enemies is more openly used to force people to love the imperial security story than at any time I can remember, but this is truly an archetypal story. In fact, I think it's possible that this idea, the idea that security comes through power and might, is the most frequently argued against concept in the entire Bible.

The Exodus story establishes the Biblical prototype as God delivers the Israelite slaves from the mighty Egyptian empire. After the armies of Pharoah were drowned at the Red Sea, the Israelites sang, "I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation." (Ex. 15:1-2)

But it's a lesson that must constatly be relearned. When Samuel is conceived his mother Hannah sings to the Lord, "The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength." (1 Sam 2:4) But within Samuel's lifetime the people are asking for a king like other nations.

As the Assyrian empire rises, Sennecherib's representative tells the people of Jerusalem:
Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: "Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree, and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive oil and honey, that you may live and not die. Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The Lord will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered its land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?"
-2 Kings 18:28-35
This is the other side of the imperial security story. If you're weak, submit to our empire and we'll give you security. Yet throughout all of this, the prophets kept telling the kings of Judah not to give up and not to seek military allies but to trust in God. Their advice must surely have sounded insane. Just wait? Really? But the point is this: military strength does not bring security.

If there was any doubt where God stands on this issue, it should be cleared up in the story of Jesus. Jesus was born into the world of the Pax Romana. By its military might, the Roman Empire had brought peace and security to all who would submit to them. A letter from this time speaks of Caesar Augustus as "Savior":
[T]he Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order....
But in the backwoods of Galilee, a young woman sings of God, "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:51-52) And how does this happen? By the weakness and humilation of the Cross.

And the Cross is the key to all of this. As you read the Biblical invectives against relying on power and strength, it's easy to move it into a theology of glory and transfer your reliance to "the power and strength of our God" but still thought of as power and strength in the traditional sense. And from there it is a short and inevitable step for a powerful nation to march with God on their side -- "Gott mit uns" as the German belt buckle read in both world wars. But the Cross will have none of this.

It is utterly amazing to me how quickly we progressed from the cross as a symbol of God's strength in weakness to the imperial story of "In this sign, conquer." It is shocking how a generation of Christians who had persisted in their faith through severe persecution allowed it to be said. And it is disheartening that after centuries of "reformation" their are still people who tout a "Christian nation" that would spread "democracy" by military force and make the bald-faced claim that our security depends on military strength.

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