In one of my classes yesterday, I managed to paint myself into a rhetorical corner while trying to make a point about what it means to be a prophetic Christian in the United States today. Echoing a point made by Richard Bauckham, I pointed out that the book of Revelation was written in response to crisis of being a Chrisian in the context of empire, in particular the Roman Empire. Then, I noted, in our society the country that wears the mantel of empire must become identified with the Beat of Revelation. And that means that the crisis for American Christians today is rooted in the recognition that, far from looking around the world for the anti-Christ, we need only look in the mirror, for we are it.
The issue is not, I noted, that the United States is an instrument of unalloyed evil. Rather, in niebuhrian mode, I noted that good and evil grow up together in our national life. As a nation we have the potential for much good, but also much evil, and we are most likely to do evil gladly when we do it in the name of good. The same could be said for Rome. It's not that they brought nothing to the people they dominated, it was that the good they brought blinded them to the oppression that was at the root of their Empire. This point is made brilliantly in the Monty Python film, "The Life of Brian."
But, here's where I got caught out. If we are the empire, and therefore bring oppression along with us as an aspect of our (increasingly beleaguered) global hegemony, does that mean that we are responsible for the violence that arises in resistence to that hegemony? To put it bluntly, does all of this mean that we are "to blame" for the attacks of September 11th? Does all of this then simply amount to making "excuses for terrorism"?
In order to answer that question, it seems to me, we need to think carefully about the concept of "responsibility." Can we as a nation be responsible for, and accountable for, the negative effects of our global policies, and can we recognize the predictable consequences of that policy, without at the same time offering aid and comfort to terrorists? Or, can we say that, whatever responsibility we have for our policies, and the suffering that they cause, as well as the system of domination upon which they are built, this is no justification for terror, and in particular no justification for the murder of 3000 innocents? I believe we can.
Ron Paul, one of the Republican candidates for President, has been pilloried over the past several weeks, primarily by Rudy Guliani, for making essentially this same point -- there is such a thing as blowback, unforeseen consequences of decisions made to solidify U.S. global hegemony, and we need to be able as a nation to take stock of our actions, in order to understand how we can change our policies to defuse an increasingly violent situation.
This is not, I believe, "blaming the victim." It is about an honest assessment of what we have done as a nation, and what our role has been in arriving at where we are. There are many on the right, who are now excoriating Ron Paul, who believe that any attempt to recognize one's own responsibility in the violence perpetrated against one is an exercise in excusing that violence. This is a fine way to evade responsibility and avoid facing up to one's own guilt, but it solves nothing, illuminates nothing, prevents nothing, and heals nothing. It answers every spasm of violence with an equal and opposite spasm of violence, without ever attempting to de-escalate the conditions of violence in order to arrive at a peaceful outcome.
Nobody should be under the illusion that such attempts are easy, or that they would work universally, but they could have the effect of beginning to change the conditions to which we as a nation must respond, and the circumstances in which we must live. If we disregard such attempts as fruitless at the outset, and not even worth considering, then we reject out of hand the possibility that we may break the spiral of violence.
And this was part of my point. The empire is founded on violence. Any empire is. To the degree that the United States is an empire (and it is so in most of the practically applicable ways), its global hegemony is ensured through violence and the threat of violence. And if this is so, then the place of the Chrisian can only be outside of the system that legitimates and idolizes the violence of empire, calling for a different way of life, a global society, not a global empire. That global society would not be rooted in the hegemony of any one nation, but would be founded on the community and citizenship of all people. The idea of global citizenship, as an ideal for a social life compatible with Christian ethics, is worth developing and expanding, in opposition to the idolotry of American exceptionalism.
Of course, there will be, and should be, Christian politicians. But to be a Christian politician, or a Christian soldier, requires that one be willing to live with the internal contradictions of ones public responsibility and one's Christian calling. The Christian politician can and should enter into political life only to the extent that he or she is willing to advocate for a politics that anticipates the social ideals of the coming Kingdom of God, rather than the ideology of imperial power.