Hurt, Love and Empire

by Brian Walsh

During the buildup to the war in Iraq I wrote an op-ed piece for a campus ministry newsletter that the editor refused to publish. Essentially I argued that empires are always deceitful and the American empire was no exception.

When the President of the United States uses phrases like “Operation Infinite Justice,” “Shock and Awe,” and “Enduring Freedom,” Christians should recognize the arrogant deceit involved.

Or when he confidently proclaims that “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to the world” the imperial overtones should be clear to all of us, and Christians should recoil at such blasphemy.

The editor was having nothing of it. This was offensive and anti-American and he would not allow it to be published in what was a bi-national campus ministry publication. It was clear that as an American citizen he found my rhetoric hurtful and assumed that our colleagues in the United States would find it similarly hurtful.

This was neither the first nor the last time that I have met such a reaction to saying such things. My comments at Messiah College published on this blog a couple months ago occasioned similar reactions on campus.

I have also been suggesting to American audiences for some time that a form of mass hypnosis happened prior to the war on Iraq whereby all the President had to do was put “Iraq” and “9/11” in the same sentence enough times and the whole population would come to believe that there actually was a connection between the two. This is deceit and it is the kind of deceit that we have come to expect of empire.

The response is often dead silence.

Although the response to these comments was much more enthusiastic during my time at Origins NYC in Manhattan this past weekend, there were some who made it clear that this kind of criticism was hurtful.

I had made my Iraq and 9/11 comment while talking about Romans and during the break a young man came to talk with me. He came with an attitude of love and respect. He did not rail against me, nor was he aggressive.

He was hurt.

And he was worried that perhaps other people in the room, especially the younger people, found this hurtful as well. The issue that he was raising was one of feelings. Such a critique of their President, such a critique of their nation, indeed such a connection of the terms ‘empire’ and ‘American’ hurts. So this young man was asking me to tone it down a little.

Not always bad advice.

People who will walk into a room and denounce everything a lot of folks present hold dear, all in the name of being ‘prophetic’ need to be told to get off of their high horse. They need to drop their own self-righteousness (which I recognize as a Canadian vice in relation to our neighbours to the south) and show a little more care. Truth and love, prophetic critique and pastoral care, must always go together.

This is profoundly true.

And yet. And yet, I’m still struggling with just why it is that some folks at the heart of an empire have such thin skins. Why is it that some American Christians (certainly not all) are so sensitive when they hear criticism of American foreign policy, American pretension, American deceit?

Maybe some of our American readers can help me understand this sensitivity. But I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. It seems to me that the closer you are to the heart of empire, the more defensive you become of the inherent goodness of that empire.

The myth of American innocence, of America as a force for good, for morality, for progress and for freedom in the world is a very powerful myth. And it is a myth not at all uncommon in empires. All empires tell such stories about themselves. How else could they justify their imperial aggression and control?

And when that myth has a deep hold on your life, when that is the story that you imbibed with your mother’s milk (or Nestle’s formula as the case may be) then some outsider coming in and telling you that it is a lie, that is an imperial deceit, has got to be deeply painful.

Or is there more to it than this? Probably. And I want to understand that more. So help me out here folks…

Bono was once asked, “so how do you dismantle an atomic bomb?” And he answered, “with love, with love.” So how do you remix the empire? With love, with love.

And how do we put together this love with truth? How do we remix a dominant, deceitful and powerful worldview with love? How do we love in truth when we are remixing the empire both “out there” and deep within our own lives?

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

11 Responses to “Hurt, Love and Empire”

  1. lisa

    Hmmm…yes. Hurtful. The thing is, when you come from Canada saying these things, they have connotations that you don’t intend but can never get rid of. I think the “thin skins” of Americans are only what you see because of how Americans perceive a Canadian coming in and being critical.

    When an American criticizes America (e.g. Martin Luther King), there is resistance and lashing out, but the criticism of the system becomes a communal, shared thing –and though I’m having real trouble putting it into words, I think it becomes very much different. In any case, I disagree with you about proximity to the empire being proportional to our defensiveness of the empire.

    what I’m wondering is, when you do your thing dispelling the American myth, are you criticizing Canada at all? Because most Canadians are not that different from most Americans when it comes to the things that make this mass hypnotism work (apathy, greed, laziness, idolatry). And coming to grips with a government that has committed crimes and a national dream gone awry is an extremely difficult and painful thing — it’s gotta happen slowly, and it has to involve people who aren’t outsiders spreading the message.

    Maybe if you change your tone to one of …I don’t know, compassionate criticism? mutual repentance?

    just some thoughts.

  2. Nathan Colquhoun

    Beautifully written Brian. Your post reminds me of one I read in Adbusters last year, but instead of American policy she was talking about how consumerism is so inherent in who we are our feelings actually get hurt when we criticize it. I posted the article below in case your interested. It was an article that reminded me to give grace while still revolting against the empire.

  3. Brian

    Thanks for your comment Lisa, and for your disagreement. But you haven’t told me why you think that this proximity to empire doesn’t somehow make one more defensive. But yes, I am criticizing Canada in all of this, and I always do so explicitly, but perhaps not explicitly enough.

    Here’s another angle on this. Amos was an outside when he went up to Israel with his prophetic word. And Amaziah told him to shut up because this was the “king’s sanctuary.” So there’s good biblical evidence that outsiders are not very well received when they come with criticism. But might there be something about American xenophobia that plays into all of this.

    But I also think that Nathan’s comment is helpful in all of this. He is right, consumerism is so inherent in our lives, so deeply rooted in our lives and our identities, that any criticism of such a worldview is going to be deeply painful. Yes, that’s the point that I am making when I write about the American mythology. This is a story that is so basic to American identity that it profoundly shapes the way in which folks view, experience and therefore “feel” about the world.

    So back to Lisa, “compassionate criticism” – that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about truth and love, prophecy and pastoral care.

  4. Dale

    Heya Brian,
    Dale the ‘kiwi american’ here…

    As I may have mentioned to you before, me moving to NZ has been hugely eye-opening for me. I voted cheerfully for GWB, proud that I had supported the ‘moral’ candidate… Only now, I see too clearly that everything is moral(!!!)… not just abortion and marriage issues… I’m upset that I could have been so narrow minded…
    Now, I’m not saying I think that GWB was/is the devil incarnate, but I just know things aren’t so simple like I thought…

    I do speculate as to how we Americans can often grow so un-discerning… I do think kids reciting the pledge of “allegiance” each morning in schools is an interesting one… ‘allegiance’ to what!? the american way of life? and what is that anyway?

    You may already know of singer/songwriter Derek Webb, but he is one discerning voice. On ‘allegiance’, check out the lyrics to “a King and a Kingdom” at this url:



  5. Something About Context « Empire Remixed

    […] post on Friday stirred up some further thoughts. As someone new to a particular context, what questions […]

  6. Sue

    Brian et al: I think Lisa’s got something when she says that an outsider criticizing is harder to accept. “Don’t you talk to my sister that way” is the brother’s immediate reaction to the outsider, regardless of the truth of the comments — and the brother would same the same and worse to his sister.

    To critique the same issues in Canada doesn’t cut as close to the bone, since it’s not us Canadians who are doing all that crap. Though of course had we the power Americans do, who knows what we’d be up to, and with our proportionally smaller power we do proportionately smaller evil etc etc.

    But you’re right too! As coming from just outside the empire you can see more clearly. Inside this empire there are way more assumptions about the good of the American Way. We’ve continued talking about Romans 12 — our third week on it now — yesterday about how practically to transform our minds. Recognize the lies of the world, of the empire, of the age, and replace them with God’s promises to us, God’s life for us. Hard to recognize the lies, even harder to dig them out of the depths of our emotional responses.

    I could go on but I guess I’ll save it for my own post eh.

  7. M.joshua

    Hey Brian, those were the questions that I was asking before and after reading McLaren’s Everything Must Change. It was that which inspired Byron Borger to direct me to you and your writings. They still haunt me. My impulse since surrendering to Christ has been to speak truth and damn the consequences. Since becoming a leader in a predominantly American church family, I’ve had to learn greatly how to be nurturing and compassionate in two parts to my one part prophetic.

    Most significantly, I’m perplexed because for those of us in the Empire Subversion business are finding our occupation to be very slow going. Some days I just want to go start a counter-imperial wineskin akin to something you see in the movie Fight Club. But I know most importantly, I’m to be obedient to the Spirit. He’s the subverter. He’s the one who gives the prophesy. I know that the deeper I abide in him, the sooner that his Kingdom is coming, the more of this Empire is falling away…

  8. Michael

    Hi all,

    Brian, thank you for this reflection; I have been mulling over the question that you posed since first reading this post a few days ago, and having just returned home to the States, it seemed like a good time to offer my thoughts.

    I think that equating America as so strongly with empire can be problematic and potentially hurtful for Americans for two reasons.

    First, I don’t think that the underlying elements of empire as you identify them are inherently American. To be sure, the U.S. has and continues to commit grievous ethical violations in order to perpetuate its dominance in the world. However, I think that the impulses that fuel this pursuit of power – a penchant for ever-increasing material consumption, a zeal for security at all costs, a failure to fully acknowledge the concerns of the world’s poor – are more systemic sins that befall many countries, even if the U.S. is the easiest perpetrator tor identify.

    Second, I think that holding fast to the language of America as empire closes off the possibility of a reflective and redemptive patriotism could actually inspire the kind of change we want to see in the country. I don’t think many Americans would be interested in engaging the state if it really is nothing more than the evil empire looking only to secure its future. I am angered by American nationalism that ignores the sins of our past and present, but I also saddened when any expression of patriotism is necessarily conflated with blind nationalism. I believe that if Americans are truly going to change the country for the better, we must first be inspired by an ethic of loving one’s neighbor and enemy, but I don’t see such change being possible without a national narrative that reminds us what our country has been and what it could be, a kind of narrative that I worry is denied by the language of America defined solely as empire.

    Thanks again for post Brian. I have really appreciated your thoughts on the intersection of faith and politics and I look forward to hearing your comments, and those of anyone else reading.

  9. andrew

    I just listened to a podcast with Chuck Colson, Shane Claiborne and Greg Boyd on Krista Tippett’s “Speaking of Faith” American Public Media . I found it interesting to listen to three generations of evangelicals deal with questions of politics, and the necessary Christian response, throughout this interview.

  10. faucetboy

    Hi Brian,

    Great post. I just found it, but wanted to comment. I am an American, and I have thought about these things a lot in recent years as I have lived out of country doing mission work. When you get outside the U.S. and gain better perspective on how we treat the rest of the world, it’s bothering.

    I think the reason Americans tend to be so defensive about any criticism of our country is for the same reason the problem is there in the first place–consciously or subconsciously, we have this idea that we’re the Israel of the New Testament. We think we are God’s specially chosen nation; His gift to the world. Your quotation of GWB in your post brings it out perfectly. If we go to war, it’s then a holy war–God is on our side. Criticism falls on deaf ears, because you can’t criticize what God has chosen. When that’s the mentality, it’s hard to acknowledge our own imperialism.

    Generally speaking, I think the Christians in our country have the hardest time seeing it, because we’re the ones caught up in the ‘God’s chosen nation’ mentality. Non-Christians, who don’t have that to deal with, are tending to be more bothered by our country’s imperialism these days.

    By the way, I didn’t find your post to be overly critical or out of line (though I don’t know what else you’ve been saying). I don’t mind when a Canadian shares thoughtful, respectful criticism of our country. I live and work with a few Canadians, so I’m used to it. They have helped me to recognize some of our arrogance as a country.

    To the Americans out there, having some criticism of our country doesn’t mean we don’t love our country. I think we should work on laying our sensitivity aside long enough to hear and understand what people think and why they think it.

  11. YeonJoo

    “Why is it that some American Christians (certainly not all) are so sensitive when they hear criticism of American foreign policy, American pretension, American deceit?”

    Someone I admire once said that thinking needs to be guided by affection to be real and true. It is important that affection and love be our guide for appropriate thought and action (see Wendell Berry). I don’t think criticism in general of their nation is difficult for American Christian to hear. I think it is criticism said without affection that is difficult to bear.


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