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The Empire Strikes Back - Again
  We don't know when the Galactic Empire existed, or will exist. But we do know how it came or will come into being....(I know this is true because I got it from the Star Wars website!)

From the bloated carcass of the Old Republic, an ambitious politician [Palpatine] carved the Galactic Empire, a New Order of government meant to sweep away the injustices and inefficiencies of its predecessor.

Personal liberties were crushed, and the governance of everyday affairs was pulled away from the senate, and instead given to unscrupulous regional governors. The Empire's structure was a bewildering array of crossed authorities, all ultimately answerable to Palpatine himself. This ensured that only Palpatine could speak with absolute authority, while his underlings carefully watched their words and actions.

Accompanying the growth of the Empire was an unprecedented military buildup. ... It was through fear that the Empire ruled. Its power hungry lieutenants and technocrats developed greater and greater instruments of destruction to cow a rebellious populace.

Despite such shows of strength -- indeed, because of them -- the flames of rebellion fanned higher. Small pockets of resistance banded together to form the Alliance to Restore the Republic. [The Alliance finally won a major victory against the Empire in the battle of Yavin, when the first Death Star was destroyed.] Having proved itself a viable threat, the Rebel Alliance found itself under Imperial counterattack.

[The culmination of this conflict was the battle of Endor.] The Battle of Endor was entirely designed by the prescient Emperor Palpatine to be the final confrontation in the Galactic Civil War. Palpatine failed to foresee the resourcefulness of the Rebels or the treachery of one of his most trusted aides, however. [That aide was Darth Vader.] Palpatine died at Endor, and the second Death Star was destroyed. With this crippling blow, the Imperial reign of terror over the galaxy ended.

The Galactic Empire showed certain characteristics which historians tell us are found in virtually all empires:

I. It was strongly hierarchical, both as a state - the political realm - and as a society - the social realm. The authority of Palpatine, the Emperor, was absolute. He was in many ways treated as divine.
II. There was a center to the Empire (though it may be hidden), known as the metropole, and a periphery. Though on a large scale, the Galactic Empire was geographically defined (ie by the number of worlds and galaxies it controlled). It was very much a system of domination.
III. The Empire was very much multi-ethnic (witness the famous bar scene from the first Star Wars movie). Incorporation and subordination of different ethnic and religious groups is characteristic of empires generally. Toleration and even incorporation (or co-optation) of ethnic minorities are often predicated on the threat of persecution.
IV. The Empire was set up as a hub-and-spokes model; the center (the Emperor) related independently to each subordinate unit. Those subordinate units were actively discouraged from communicating directly with each other or with anyone outside of the Empire. One of Palpatine's first actions was to take away the HoloNet, which was similar to our Internet so as to make communication more difficult. Intimidation was the order of the day. (NB that one of the ways of testing the death star weapons was to destroy a planet on which insurrection was even suspected - intimidation on a truly planetary scale.)

Now look at the Roman Empire in Jesus' time. It looks very similar. It was acutely hierarchical, with Caesar at the pinnacle of power and influence. He actively claimed divinity. (The birth story as told in Luke's Gospel used Caesar's claim to divinity effectively against the Empire. All those Christmas words - Son of God, Lord, saviour of the world, the one who brings peace on earth - were originally titles claimed by Caesar.) The metropole - the centre - of the Roman Empire was, of course, Rome itself. There sat Caesar, and there sat power. Outlying regions (like Palestine, where Jesus lived) were controlled by governors, procurators, etc., who reported to Caesar, paid homage to him, and took their orders from him. The Empire was geographically bounded; it consisted of Rome plus the conquered territories. The metropole of Rome spread the pax romana over the outlying (ie conquered) regions by simple force of arms. The pax romana was peaceful because the subjugated peoples were kept unarmed, defenseless, and scared. It was very much a system of domination.

The Roman Empire was, almost of necessity, multi-ethnic, since it conquered so far and wide. Conquered peoples, and particularly their indigenous leaders, were encouraged to co-operate with the occupying Romans; this led to extensive collaboration between conqueror and conquered. It was in fact one of the principles of the Roman occupations to attempt to enlist the aid and co-operation of religious leaders. Marx was not the first to note that religion can be the opiate of the masses.

The Roman Empire had a hub-and-spokes organizational structure. While regional authorities had a fair amount of autonomy (as long as they paid the taxes to Rome and took care of any uprisings), they did not tend to interact with parallel authorities in other areas of the Empire, nor with authorities in non-conquered regions. (Admittedly lack of communications facilities contributed to this; they couldn't just pick up the phone. But fear of what the metropole - Rome - might say about such things contributed far more.) (1)

But what of empire in the modern world, and in our corner of it in particular? It is sorely tempting to cast the United States in the role of empire-builder (as Ched Myers tends to do). There is considerable merit in this, though it was much easier to do before the last US federal election. Such a view does provide some helpful insight into the workings of that country. But I would suggest that there is another far larger and more powerful empire at work in our lives today. The fact that in some ways it does not match all of the characteristics that the Galactic and Roman empires so clearly demonstrated does not disqualify it from empire status. That fact only makes it more subtle, less familiar as a type, and thus more dangerous. My provisional name for this empire (and I am very much open to suggestions for a more descriptive and accurate title) is Global Capitalism.

Its primary characteristic is that, unlike the Galactic and Roman empires, this is not geographic; rather it is economic. Its boundaries, such as they are, are the realms of economic activity which it controls or influences; it matters little where those realms lie geographically. It is hierarchical in the sense that the so-called bottom line for the largest economic units (corporations and others) is the ultimate arbiter of economic decisions. It is clearly a system of domination, in which the economically powerful exploit the less powerful. Adam Smith (quoted in Myers, op. cit.) said the the essence of imperialism lies in the metropolitan domination of the weaker economy (and its political and social superstructure) to ensure the extraction of economic rewards. Such imperialism is the process of empire. Global Capitalism is very much a form of domination and governance.

Global Capitalism is certainly multi-ethnic; it involves virtually the entire planet, and thus every ethnicity we know. Any and all groups are invited to participate in this empire, and threatened, both implicitly and explicitly, with economic struggle and/or disaster if they don't. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, though founded on a genuine desire to assist less economically developed countries to reach their full potential, have evolved to be front-line agents of the new empire. While there is now some long overdue effort to take these organizations back to their original purposes, it is clearly an uphill struggle.

Global Capitalism can be viewed as a spoke-and-hubs structure, in that economic decisions anywhere within the empire always go back to the question, Will this push forward the interests of those who currently hold economic power? In other words, will the decision being considered tend to centralize or de-centralize economic influence and power? The tenacity with which this question dictates actions can be very clearly seen in the current debate over desperately needed reform of the health care reform in (ironically) the United States.

There is much more that could be said about this modern empire(!). But with the time constraints of the morning, let me move on, and ask you to accept, at least provisionally, my thesis that Global Capitalism does indeed constitute an empire in our age. The question, then, becomes, how do we respond to this empire in which we find ourselves?

Ched Myers, in his superb commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus), says, in agreement with W. A. Williams, that the irreducible meaning" of empire is the geopolitical control of the periphery by the center." I suggest that adding the phrase and/or economic after geopolitical makes this statement directly descriptive of our time without changing its fundamental meaning. Myers goes on to say the following:

Mark's Gospel originally was written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about their world and themselves. He does not pretend to represent the word of God dispassionately or impartially, as if that word were innocuously universal in its appeal to rich and poor alike. His is a story by, about, and for those committed to God's work of justice, compassion, and liberation in the world. To modern theologians, like the Pharisees, Mark offers no signs from heaven (Mark 8:11f.). To scholars who, like the chief priests, refuse to ideologically commit themselves, he offers no answer (Mk 11:30-33). But to those willing to raise the wrath of the empire, Mark offers a way of discipleship (8:34ff.). ... We need no longer belabor whether the Bible calls us to political practice - only what kind of practice. (P. 11)

In order to unpack the passage from Mark's Gospel which I read earlier, a brief word about Mark's Gospel as a unit would be in order here. As with the other Gospels (and most of the other books of the Bible), we don't know exactly who wrote this nor exactly when. But scholars have been able to make some highly educated guesses. The consensus runs something like this: Though we don't know who did write it, we're sure it was not written by one of Jesus' original disciples, nor indeed by anyone who knew Jesus directly. (For convenience, I will refer to the author of the Gospel as Mark, though we don't know just who he was.) It was probably written at or shortly before the year 70CE. It was the first of the four Gospels to be written, so Mark could not draw on the other three. There were no videotapes or podcasts of Jesus' actual words for Mark to work from. His writing was based on the oral history of his day, and he made specific and intentional choices about what to include, and what to exclude.

The year 70CE was a crucial year in early Palestinian history, as it marked the end - a brutal and bloody end - to a 4 year insurrection against the Roman occupiers. The revolt was put down by large numbers of Roman troops, and many of the insurrectionists died in battle or were executed shortly thereafter. Loyalty - either to the Roman Empire or to the cause of freedom from that Empire - was a crucially important question at the time, though for different reasons to different people. Mark wrote his Gospel to this particular audience - the followers of Jesus at the end of the revolt - to give them a way of seeing and understanding the world they found themselves in, and to suggest ways of responding to that world. The passage I read earlier is an example.

In that passage, Jesus was approached in the Temple by some Pharisees - the religious elite of the day - and some Herodians - the political elite, and violent ones at that. It was the Herodians who beheaded John the Baptist at the casual suggestion of the queen's daughter. First they buttered Jesus up a little: Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. (There is a wonderful irony in these words: the speakers are obviously saying something they do not believe, yet they are in fact acknowledging what is, for Mark, Jesus' true character.) All of this flattery is an obvious attempt to lure Jesus into a trap.

And then the trap is sprung: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not? The question is set up as a double bind, much like Have you stopped beating your wife? If Jesus answers yes, then he is siding with the Romans and thus loses his following. If he says, No, then he can be turned over to the Romans for treasonous statements. Heads, they win; tails, Jesus loses.

But Jesus refuses to take the bait. After naming what they are trying to do to him (Why are you putting me to the test?), he asks for a denarius, which was a common Roman coin which was used for, among other things, paying Roman taxes. He points out that the coin has a picture of the Emperor on it. (Notice the picture on a Canadian quarter on the cover of today's bulletin; remember the British Empire?) He then makes his oft-quoted statement: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's. The Pharisees and Herodians, frustrated and more than a little confused, left.

Mark was writing to those who would follow Jesus in the aftermath of a brutal, bloody, and ultimately failed rebellion against Rome. He was not telling them to withhold their taxes from Rome. To do so, particularly at that time, would have been virtually suicidal. Then as now, there was lots of grumbling about taxes, but just about everybody agreed that the state had the right to collect them. What he was telling them was that any obligations they had to Rome - to the emperor - took place within their much larger obligation to God. The two spheres were not side by side, but rather the political was contained within the religious. Each and every decision they made (symbolized by, but not limited to, the decision of whether to pay taxes) must be made in light of that larger consideration of their obligation to God. The political and military might of Rome, which was immense, was still not large enough to outweigh their obligation to God. It was a difficult message - the path it suggested was not an easy one - and a potentially dangerous one, as it could lead to defying the Roman Empire in a variety of ways. Jesus was explicitly placing political action within the realm of moral action.

I realize, of course, that for many people the word God, particularly as it is used in this passage from Mark's Gospel, is somewhere between questionable and highly offensive. I share some of that feeling; I do not believe in some sort of external deity owning parts of the world around me (or parts of me, for that matter). God has not for me been a theistic being, as suggested in this passage, for several years.

But (and this is central to what I am saying this morning) there is far more than one way of reading and understanding a passage from the Bible. So let me offer you my own understanding of this one. When I read the words Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's, I read them as Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to the natural world the things that are of the natural world. I could as well have used the word creation in place of the word God, but I realize that, for some, that word too has negative overtones. Given that my own image of God has been for some time pervasive desire for the good of all creation, I might also (and, I think, more accurately) paraphrase Jesus' words this way: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to all of creation the things that promote the good of all creation. Because I understand God to be present in all of creation, this is not, for me, a large jump from the text as printed in most Bibles.

With that reading, this passage speaks powerfully to me. Bear in mind that Mark was telling his readers to place their obligations to the Roman Empire within the context of their much larger obligation to God. This passage calls on me to place every economic decision I make - in other words every time I deal with the stuff of the Global Capitalism Empire - within the far larger context of the good of all creation. The priority list of the Empire - Acquire! Get more! Grow larger! Extract! Exploit! - must be measured against a different priority list, which consists of a single item: the good of all creation. And so I am left with a question to carry with me all the time: what decision, what answer to whatever question I happen to be wrestling with at the moment, will be most helpful in bringing about increased good for the whole of creation?

So I will pay my taxes to Harper Augustus, and for the most part quite happily, especially after seeing the chaos caused by a miserable health care system just to the south of us. But for that decision and all others, I must, as a follower of the one I know as Jesus, ask what my actions (or inactions) contribute to the good of all creation. All empires have much in common.

That is what this passage from Mark suggests to me. I would be very interested in hearing what it, or what I have said this morning, suggests to you.

(1) These characteristics of empire are taken from Empire to Nation: Historical Perspectives on th Making of the Modern World by Joseph Eshrick, Hasan Kayali, and Eric Van Young, and the writing of Miles Kahler, as quoted in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus by Ched Myers (Maryknoll, NY: Orbus Books,1988).