Monday, November 28, 2005

Who is the Emperor?

Perhaps I was reminded of Plato when I read Colossians Remixed because the latter is, explicitly in places, a dialogue. The book is structured as a possible response to the questions or problems of four real people, William, Elanna , Eric and Anthony, all young postmodernists. At times, the authors address anticipated objections through explicit, Socratic-style dialogue with a fictional reader. These dialogues are very well done, and generally put the finger right on the objection that was forming in my mind. They did not set up straw men.

They begin with a premise that underlies the subtitle of the book: we, like Paul and Jesus, live in an empire. Our empire is cybernetic globalism, which involves consumerism, global corporations, militarism, and technological optimism. Like Rome, like all empires, our empire claims allegiance on the basis of its being the source of peace and all that is good in our lives, and extends its images and its viewpoint into every aspect of life. It is totalitarian and ultimate. It takes the place and claims the honors that rightly belong only to God.

This conceptualization of the consumerist culture of global capitalism is a very fruitful one, allowing all sorts of useful insights into our lives in the West today. I plan to think more deeply on the ramifications of this idea, and perhaps thereby fulfill, at least partly, Walsh and Keesmaat's purpose in writing this book. Nevertheless, there is a problem with drawing a parallel between the Roman Empire and global consumer capitalism. They are not in the same category. They cannot be made analogous.

Rome was an actual empire. The word "empire" has a tangible, geopolitical meaning, and Rome -- and Assyria, and Babylon, the Soviet Union and 19th Century Britain -- were empires in this sense. These had a hierarchical structure with a single sovereign at the top, even if that sovereign was an elected one. They had specific domains. They had an identifiable imperial army. They had specific written laws. In short, they were specific instances of a human sovereign having dominion over a specific, if broad, geographical territory.

Global capitalism is a different sort of thing, even if it has some of the same features. It is an "ism", so to speak. Communism is also not an empire, though it also shares features of totalism and manipulation of images and imagination. Global capitalism and communism are one sort of thing, empire is another sort of thing. Indeed, an actual empire, like ancient Rome or the British empire, may be globally capitalistic while another, like the old USSR, may be communistic.

This may seem like a quibble, but it is not. How one relates to a thing is limited by what sort of thing it is. Paul could, and did, appeal to Caesar. This was not merely symbolic, or metaphorical, but actual, because Rome was an actual empire. Who is the emperor of global consumer capitalism? If W and K had explicitly identified the Empire as the United States, the analogy to Rome would have been better, but it would have narrowed the scope of their critique.

A solution that occurs to me, that they approach occasionally but do not develop, and which I believe is quite biblical, is that the idea of totalitarian empire, of which Rome was an instance, and which our western culture and various eastern and communist cultures are instances, comes from the ancient enemy of God's kingdom, Mystery Babylon. Both Peter and John make explicit connections between their Rome and the ancient whore. If one examines the world's lament over fallen Babylon in Revelation, one finds all the totalitarianism and commercial features that W and K find in Rome and in our culture. If this is so, if the empire is today, and always has been, Babylon, then we have identified an emperor, one with many heads just as we may see today, perhaps.

So why didn't W and K take it to Babylon? I suspect because that would shift the reader 's focus to the heavenly or spiritual realms, and they wish to focus on earth, in a geopolitical sense. This, I fear, is an overreaction to a perceived unbalanced dualism that emphasizes the heavenly and spiritual over the earthly and physical. The biblical stories emphasize both. We struggle in both worlds. Paul struggled "not against flesh and blood" but against principalities and powers, yet a flesh and blood Roman soldier lopped off his head.

1 comment:

  1. Joe,
    I am a big reggae listener and the rastafarians certainy get the babylon thing well. Of course they place classic-christianity in with babylon and they add a little racism in for extra simplicity, but the whole "system" they see as oppressive an they attempt to live outside the system. This idea of the whole system being babylon leads us radical types to likewise see the church as needing to meet the roles that we leave behind when we flee ALL of babylon.

    You have made me want to read this book.