On EMPIRE and Empire

 by Sylvia Keesmaat

Our friends over at culture is not optional (*cino), Rob and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma are teaching a course this semester at Calvin College on pop culture and empire. They sent a couple of questions to Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat that they were struggling with.

We thought that Sylvia’s response was insightful, so we present here Kirstin’s questions and Sylvia’s reply.

Kirstin: Would you talk about a capital-e Empire as the archetype to the anti-Kingdom? (Empire=evil, Kingdom=good, both manifesting themselves in human culture to varying degrees) Alternately, is there no Empire, but only small-e empire–a collection of manifestations throughout time and place (including within the human heart) that need to be sorted out for what’s good and evil?

Essentially, what is the relationship between EMPIRE and empire? We’re debating about whether to add Howard Zinn’s graphic novel A People’s History of American Empire to our reading list. We want to name manifestations of Empire specifically and clearly, but don’t want to limit our students’ understanding of Empire either, because it’s bigger than this time and place.

We’re going back and forth on how to balance empire as a socio-political reality and Empire as a theological concept. Any help you have time to offer would be appreciated.

Sylvia: I tend to think of the “does empire equal evil (ie. EMPIRE)” issue in this way. The deeper problem goes beyond empire, it goes much deeper down. When I look at the biblical story, it is clear that disobedience and sin begin in the single act of a woman and a man grasping something that was not theirs to grasp. And then that leads to the violence within their family (Cain and Abel) and then to the larger manifestation of societal disobedience (Babel). That larger societal disobedience is what we call empire.

Empire is the largest manifestation of the evil that begins its sojourn in the human heart and grows up through all the relationships that constitute society. The reason that Brian and I and many others focus so much on this particular manifestation of evil is that biblical faith is predominantly formed “in the shadow of empire” to use Walter Brueggemann’s insightful phrase.

The biblical story seems to be constantly grappling with empire precisely because the focus isn’t just on personal sin but on societal sin and what it looks like. So, I guess I wouldn’t say that there is EMPIRE. There is, rather, EVIL, which manifests itself in various empires throughout history.

Another way to say this is that when EVIL takes socio-historical form, it is always imperial in character. In terms of Empire as a theological concept and as a socio-political reality the only clues that we have as to how to live faithfully under empire is to look at how the people of God have engaged faithfully or not in their particular historical situations. And, I think, that there is no non-contextual way to talk about empire, even theologically. (Does that double negative work?).

That is to say, we have to talk specifically about the imperial context in which we find ourselves in order to discern what is faithful living in the heart of empire. But we also have to be careful to show how the lines are larger than this moment in time. So, for instance, when I’m speaking in your country people are eager to label the United States as the evil empire (maybe I’m not talking to your average Christian American).

In Canada, believe it or not, people are more reluctant to make such a claim, perhaps because they don’t want to seem anti-American. And I can understand the reluctance because global capitalism is larger than the United States. And countries like Canada, while acting self-righteous for not going into the war in Iraq, still maintain higher levels of energy consumption per capita than our neighbours to the south.

We may not talk of ourselves as empire, but we are a huge part of the imperial dynamic in the world – we like our oil, we really do!

So I prefer to talk about global capitalism, or, more pointedly, the global capitalist military industrial complex as our imperial reality (but only rarely since that particular phrase alienates more people than it speaks to). And, of course, as far as empires go, the United States is a toddler on the scene. The Netherlands, Britain, Spain all played the imperial game long before the U.S. In fact, the roots of racism, slavery and segregation in the U.S. can be traced to the empires of these countries. Complicity in empire runs in my blood.

Anyway, those are my ramblings. I hope they are of some help to you and Rob and you teach this course. Have fun teaching; we’ll keep you in our prayers

Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

5 Responses to “On EMPIRE and Empire”

  1. cyr

    thanks, i really enjoyed reading this. hits on the heart of the difficulty we all have in living in an empire and the complicity that entails, as well as the complexities of identifying the empire in the modern geo-political context. the historical roots of empire is a topic i’d love to see more on here as i’m struggling trying to trace all the threads ….

  2. Randy Gabrielse

    Sylvia et. al.
    I appreciate the struggle to bring the historically real and present into perspective without limiting either empire or evil to what is currently here.

    As a trained historian I find looking at the ongoing development of power and empire over time as a way to view these things. Within that, I have always found looking at EXTRACTION, TECHNOLOGY, and more recently ENERGY as useful ways to trace these things through history.

    Whether gold and silver from Mexico and Peru, fine hardwoods from Guatemala and Belize, Diamonds from S. Africa, Guano from Chile, Minerals from Congo, Uranium from New Mexico and Canada, Coal from Appalachia (whether deep or mountain top removal mining), lumber from NY and the Northwest, or oil from the Middle East and Alberta, the patterns of extraction and compensation for it provide guides to who is in charge where and how the extractors act relatively consistently over time.

    Randy Gabrielse

  3. jason

    Great question and fantastic answer, I do believe when speaking of Empire we should think globally, and in that sense, as the worlds only supposed Super Power that would for make The United States the Evil Empire[current one, as many nations have had a turn as was pointed out already]…

  4. Brian

    Hey folks:

    I’m at Sundance and watched a documentary the other day called “Crude” that made Randy’s point very well. It’s the story of Texaco/Chevron’s extraction of oil from the Ecuadorian jungle and the environmental destruction and health crisis that they ended up leaving behind. Extraction, technology and energy, and what is interesting is that environmental remediation technology that would have been used in North America is seen as unnecessary when it is the the lives of Indiginious people at stake. That is empire, and that is EMPIRE.

  5. Hold Fast to the Head - Empire Remixed

    […] And this is where we come back to Brian & Sylvia’s theme of empire. […]


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