Christmas is a time when Christians think about empires, or at least when they should be thinking about them. The nativity narrative in the Gospel of Luke is a story of the rise and fall of empires, a theme often lost to us amid the tinsel, shopping, and sentimental din that fill the season. We need to enter a quieter space to recover this theme, and to contrast it with the gospel of empire proclaimed last year at this time by Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Empire of Cheney
For 2003 Cheney and his wife Lynne sent out to key supporters and Washingtonian VIPs a holiday greeting that attracted a lot of attention. Void of Christian symbolism, the card presented a Currier and Ives-like sketch of the Cheney living room with comfortable chairs facing a festooned fireplace. The greeting read: “Our best wishes to you and your family in this holiday season and throughout the years ahead.” There followed a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
The quotation caused a bit of a storm because it seemed to confirm what many have suspected, namely that the current administration sees the United States as an empire and is using the nation’s military pre-eminence to enforce a Pax Americana in the world. President George W. Bush and his advisors have been quick to say that talk of empire is nonsense. “As many veterans have seen in countries around the world, captive people have greeted American soldiers as liberators. We have no territorial ambitions, we don’t seek an empire,” Bush said to gathered veterans. When a German reporter suggested to National Security Council Director Condoleezza Rice that many Europeans compare the policies of the present administration to those of the Roman Empire, she answered: “I wouldn’t accept the comparison to the Roman Empire, of course, because the United States has no imperial ambitions.”
We have no territorial ambitions. No imperial ambitions. If by “no territorial ambitions” this administration means that it does not intend to annex other countries, then the statement is true. But there are many versions of empire and many ways to exercise control over nations. The most successful empires, like the Roman but also the Greek and Persian, put a collar on other nations with a long tether. Nations had some freedom of movement before they felt the pull on the neck. They were often allowed to keep their own traditions and to govern themselves in matters that did not threaten the ultimate control of the Empire. Military forces were deployed but kept to certain bases and used only in emergencies. Limited autonomy often led to greater vitality and productivity in nations so that in the end the central power could skim them for more resources.
Despite its protestations, the Bush-Cheney presidency does have imperial ambitions. These ambitions are clearly stated in a document called The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS), which can be downloaded from the White House website [www.whitehouse.gov]. The NSS lays out the worldview and strategic plan of the current administration, but it also intimates what amounts to the gospel of this presidency, in many respects a peculiar adaptation of the gospel of Christians.
The NSS tells the story of a world at war: “Freedom and fear are at war, and there will be no quick or easy end to this conflict.” The term freedom in the document designates a way of life in which the ideals of liberty, justice, human dignity, and respect for private property find expression in free enterprise, free trade, free speech, and the free exercise of religion. The life of freedom, furthermore, is the manifestation of truth in the world: “These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” Because freedom is right and true, it is efficacious: “Free trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty–so the United States will work with individual nations, entire regions, and the entire global trading community to build a world that trades in freedom and therefore grows in prosperity.” Because freedom is a universal truth, its advancement is the moral responsibility of all nations: “No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them.” Every nation can and must be held to the standard of freedom.
Fear is the enemy of freedom, the NSS continues. Fear is a way of life in which terror and violence spawn tyrannical regimes, weak states, corruption, war, and enslavement. Fear is the manifestation of evil in the world, and like freedom, fear and terror are efficacious–they bring about poverty, disease, and oppression. The NSS accordingly applauds the redemptive mission that President Bush spelled out for the United States at the National Cathedral on 14 September 2001: “Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Fortunately, the document continues, the United States emerged from the previous war with totalitarianism (incarnate in the Soviet Union) “in a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence.” It has the unique opportunity to use its strength “to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose [italics added] for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty.”
High sounding as this rhetoric is, the NSS does not allow other nations a real choice for or against freedom. Because freedom is a universal truth, the “birthright” of all people, nations are obligated to pursue it. They must enter the free market, promote human dignity, establish democratic rule, and eliminate terrorist groups in their midst. The NSS spells out various degrees of coercion to which the United States will resort toward this end–financial incentives and diplomatic pressure, first of all. If, however, the United States cannot “convince” nations to assume their destiny, it must “compel” them. The United States reserves the right to attack preemptively any nation when it feels its values and interests are being threatened.
To this end the United States is committed, we are told, to maintaining overwhelming military superiority in the world. The administration will pursue “a wider range of military options to discourage aggression or any form of coercion against the United States, our allies, and our friends.” It will establish military bases throughout the world, as it is currently doing in Iraq, for instance. But it also looks to the heavens where weapons (the NSS labels them “assets in outer space”) might be placed to make preemptive strikes against enemy satellites and missile sites, a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. An internal Air Force document puts it starkly: “Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack. Space and air superiority are crucial first steps in any military operation” (Guardian, 7 November 2004).
Near its conclusion the NSS leaves no doubt that the Bush-Cheney presidency is building an empire: “The United States must and will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by an enemy–whether a state or a non-state actor–to impose its will on the United States, our allies, or its friends.” Lest this be interpreted as just another version of the doctrine of preemption, the following sentence goes further: “Our force will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” A nation that aspires to all-surpassing power aspires to empire. China beware.
We have good reason
, then, to take Lynne and Dick Cheney’s 2003 holiday greeting at face value. The divine benediction their card invokes upon America’s imperial venture, however, invites Christians into the conversation: “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” There is no better time than Christmas to talk about God and empires, because then Christians celebrate the birth of a child of whom the angels said, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Anointed One, the Lord.” The Christmas story is the story of God raising up a king and a kingdom, the story of an emperor and empire. So prompted by Lynne and Dick, we, Christians, need to ask ourselves again: what is the connection between what God was doing in Bethlehem and what God is doing in Washington?
The Empire of Caesar
The stories that Luke tells in his gospel follow patterns that he knew well from his reading of the Old Testament. One popular pattern gave Luke his template for telling about Jesus’ birth. In this pattern the storyteller limits his or her focus to three main characters, one of whom must make a decision about the truth embodied in the words and actions of the other two. Think, for instance, of the well-known story–quite apropos for our purposes–of David and Goliath.
In 1 Samuel 17, we first meet Goliath who by word and action makes perfectly clear that he believes in the “power of the sword.” Over and against him we meet David who believes in the “power of the Lord.” David’s words toward the end of the story capture the opposition concisely: “You come to me with a sword and a spear and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied” (verse 45). Saul is the most complicated character in this story for he has to decide between the giant and the boy and the two truths they embody. In bearing the weight of decision-making, Saul stands close to the audience. Vacillating, he tries to compromise by putting together the power of the sword and the power of the Lord–an old version of the saying, “Praise God and pass the ammunition.” He offers David his sword and armor before sending him out to battle Goliath, which ironically only immobilizes the boy, a foreshadowing of what will happen to the heavily armored giant. This structure draws the hearer deeply into the conversation about the relationship between faith and weaponry, an Israelite contribution to what would later be called just-war theory.
In telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke too focuses on three main characters: Caesar Augustus, the child, and the shepherds. Of these three, our recitals of the story consistently ignore one character. Recall the familiar church school Christmas program. As a narrator begins to read, Mary and Joseph make their way down the center isle of the sanctuary, draped in remnants of material that would better have been left on the bargain table at the local fabric store. In an ironic adaptation of Luke’s narrative, Sunday-School Mary carries Baby Jesus in her arms. No labor, no pain, and no birth in the American redaction. Mary and Joseph assume their place in a stable, identified most clearly by a manger that looks like an inverted sawhorse and a bale or two of hay.
As the narrator proceeds to verse 8, the shepherds come down the aisle in terry cloth bathrobes. The narrator shifts to the Gospel of Matthew, and three wise men follow the shepherds, bearing gifts. A hundred years of so-called higher criticism have not stopped the traditional Christmas pageant from harmonizing the gospels. Suddenly angels appear as white cones with fragile cardboard wings and tinseled halos. Contrary to biblical tradition, the angels are always girls; it’s hard to get boys into white, cone-shaped outfits. The narrator closes the pageant by reading how the shepherds went away praising God, and the congregation stands to sing “Joy to the World.”
Caesar Augustus never appears in these pageants despite the fact that, in Luke’s gospel, he dominates the first part of the story with a display of power corresponding to that of God. In creating the world, we learn from Genesis, God spoke and things came into existence. God’s word set the world in motion. Now Caesar issues a decree that “all the world should be registered.” He opens his mouth, words pass his lips, and these words have power: “All went to their own towns to be registered.” All went. Mary and Joseph are just two among perhaps millions who felt the power of Caesar’s decree. Caesar’s word literally set the world in motion.
Not only can Caesar set the world in motion, he will be a presence in the lives of every person. They all have to register themselves. He reduces every person in every tribe and nation to a line-item in the book of empire. Now every man and woman bear the mark of Caesar. He has their number, and they can be added or subtracted according to equations of greed and control. Caesar’s domination over Mary and Joseph is total as the story begins. Caesar is clearly the one in whom they live and move and have their being. So powerful is Caesar that people are given to calling him Lord and even Savior.
The Empire of Christ
In sharp contrast to the power of Caesar in Luke’s story is the power of the child: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manager, because there was no place for them in the inn.” It appears that this child has no place in the world, while Caesar has the preeminent place, the center to which everything is connected; that this child is dressed in bands of cloth, while Caesar is dressed in purple; that this child lies in a manger, while Caesar sits on a throne; that this child cannot yet speak a word, while Caesar’s decrees change the face of the world.
Caesar Augustus is seemingly Lord and Savior of the world, yet the angels appropriate these titles for Jesus. They announce to the shepherds that they have good news for “all people.” In the context of the story, “all people” are the same people that Caesar has forced to register themselves. They tell the shepherds that a Savior, the Anointed One, the Lord, has been born and that a sign of lordship is this: “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
With these words Luke has set up the stark contrast between Caesar and the Christ child. The shepherds and all other hearers of the story, both then and now, stand between these two Emperors. We all have to make a decision. Only one is Lord of the universe and Savior of the world. The shepherds go to check it out, and they tell others, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Amazement. Such an unlikely story of king and kingdom, emperor and empire. So counterintuitive. The manger king is the true king. He, not Augustus, will move the world.
The shepherds stand between these two emperors, and so does Mary. Luke tells us that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Like the shepherds she has to decide where true power lies. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary’s pondering has particular poignancy and depth. Already with Gabriel’s annunciation, she pondered why God would choose one so lowly as she (1:29). She pondered how these words of an angel could apply to a child from her womb: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33). Her ponderings came to expression in her psalm of thanksgiving:
He has brought down the
powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary felt herself being taken up in a great reversal. In Luke 1 the reversal had been announced; in Luk
e 2 it has begun. All the words of Mary’s psalm of thanksgiving now came to expression in the event of this birth. “He had brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”–could Mary have foreseen that the cry of her child would undo all the decrees of Caesar? “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”–the manger is a feeding trough. Could Mary have foreseen that her child’s body and blood would be food for the world?
“If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” An empire is arising with God’s aid. It is the empire depicted for us in the Gospel of Luke. It is made up of the people who are part of the great reversal, who bow before the manger throne, who eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, who fill the hungry with good things, who lift up the lowly, who find power in vulnerability and self-giving, who wait for the mighty to fall from their thrones. It is made up of people who are trying to take these Christian principles and turn them into public policy so that the glory of our Emperor can fill the earth.