This article by Gary Kenny originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2006 edition of Seeing Ourselves.
"In the 21st century world of empire, Caesar commands, God calls. Whom will we serve?"
With this question—indeed, challenge—begins "Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire," a report produced by the Justice, Global and Ecumenical Relations (JGER) Unit for the 39th General Council.
The Empire Report, as it is commonly called, builds on "To Seek Justice and Resist Evil: Towards a Global Economy for all God's People," a report by the former Division of World Outreach that was approved by General Council in 2000. "To Seek Justice and Resist Evil" described, analyzed, and denounced "the global reality of systemic economic injustice." The Empire Report documents how economic globalization is becoming more complex and insidious and is exponentially increasing the pain and misery experienced by the vast majority of God's people.
United Church global partners in Canada and overseas continually tell us about rising rates of poverty, infant mortality, disease, and other chronic social problems. They decry the wanton exploitation of their natural resources, militarization of their societies, and destruction of their natural environments. Their testimonies give voice to the lived experience of millions of people the world over who feel the developed world cares little for their well-being.
At its General Assembly in 2004, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) looked at the negative consequences of economic globalization for the most vulnerable and for the earth community. They encouraged a rediscovery of the biblical teaching about empire.
Similarly, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has called the worldwide church to commit itself to reflection on the question of power and empire from a biblical perspective. They called for a firm faith stance against hegemonic powers—because all power is accountable to God.
Because of the complexity of contemporary empire, it is not something that can easily be defined. A shorthand but oversimplified definition is "interconnected systems of political and economic domination, often kept in place by violence or the threat of violence, that are global in scope and benefit the few at the expense of the many."
Perhaps the best way to understand the nature and impact of empire is through the stories and testimonies of United Church global partners, including those contained in the Empire Report. For example, "Empire, Militarism and Human Rights in the Philippines" illustrates how militarization, employed as a strategy to advance a political and economic agenda, can impair a nation's ability to exercise its sovereignty in a manner that has not only life-threatening, but mortal, consequences for its citizens.
"Baywatch and Cell Phone Cameras: Middle Eastern Youth and the Culture of Empire" demonstrates the impact Western culture can have especially on youth. Western TV, movies, music, and other forms of entertainment, with their pervasive promotion of materialism and consumerism, can "anaesthetize an increasingly restless and angry generation of youth" in impoverished and marginalized countries in the world.
"Empire and Environmental Destruction in Haiti" shows how, in some countries in the global South, 19th-century colonialism has evolved into a form of unchecked global capitalism that exploits, and in the case of Haiti, has all but ruined, what was once a paradise of natural riches.
"Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Looking into the Eyes of Empire" glimpses how Canada has engaged in imperial behaviour, but on the home front. As one writer quoted in the story says, while Canadian imperial treatment of Aboriginal peoples may not have had all the pomp and ceremony of the British Raj, it was nonetheless connected to the global phenomenon of empire at that time.
Those writing about 21st-century empire say that an important key to grasping the concept and finding the means to resist it lies with Jesus' ministry in first-century Palestine. Israel's yearning for liberation from Roman oppression, which resonates strongly with marginalized people today, is so much of the context of the ministry of Jesus, the Empire Report states.
Looking at Jesus' speech and action outside of the context of the impact of Roman imperialism on life in Galilee is like trying to understand Martin Luther King Jr. apart from the affects of slavery, reconstruction, and segregation on the lives of African Americans in the United States, writes the scholar Richard Horsley in his book, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.
In addition to the stories of United Church partners, "Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire" includes a theological reflection on empire and a section called "Confession," which acknowledges and analyzes the church's complicity in empire. It also features a section that encourages all United Church members to take up the challenge of their collective confession by seeking to be a responsive and transformed people of faith, hope, and love at every level of their being and of the church.
The 39th General Council affirmed the Empire Report and directed it to General Council Executive for action. Follow-up will be in the form of three years of engagement and animation of United Church congregations on the subject of empire. The program will be guided by the Empire Animation Working Group, a JGER committee with representation by other General Council Office units, including Ethnic Ministries, as well as elected members. Resources will be designed and rolled out beginning in the fall of 2007. Featured will be an "empire lens"—a tool to assist congregations, and all courts of the church including the General Council Office, to analyze how they might embody imperial traits in their methods of governance, organizational structures, and interpersonal relations, and how they might adopt alternatives that better exemplify God's love in and for the world.
So who is Caesar today?
There are many Caesars, the report says. They are the states that use their overwhelming economic and military power to subdue other states and impose their political and cultural preferences. They are the international trade regimes that use the language of fairness but in reality render unfair advantage to those in already affluent, developed countries. They are the transnational corporations that exploit the natural resources of impoverished, indebted countries with few regulations to hold them accountable. They are the religious institutions that distort and use Holy Scripture to suppress free critical thought and promote imperious behaviour among their members.
The Caesars of our time may also be you and me—to the extent that we participate, knowingly or unknowingly, in a hyper-consumer society, the wealth of which has been accumulated at the expense of vulnerable people and countries and the global natural environment.
But the Empire Report is hopeful. It asserts that we can indeed resist empire and transform the world through works of love and justice. The theologian Nestor Miguez, who is quoted in the report, encourages us to locate ourselves in spaces of hope. To do so is to begin working beyond empire and creating life-giving alternatives for everyone.