It is pretty common to hear American academics labeling America as an “empire.” In June of 2006, for instance, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosted the annual meeting of The Historical Society, the topic of which was “Globalization, Empire, and Imperialism in Historical Perspective.” A theme that appeared in the essays presented at the conference was the comparison of the United States to the various imperial regimes of world history.
The most provocative papers at the conference were provocative precisely because they challenged the prevailing view of America as an empire. Perhaps the only thing more provocative than arguing that America is not an empire is to suggest that empires can be good for humanity. This is precisely what Deepak Lal argued in his essay by holding out the possibility that empires can be a stabilizing force for good in the world (see here and here).
In my previous post, I asked whether America can be aptly labeled an empire. I argued briefly that I think there are some important differences between America and some of the more notorious empires of world history (e.g., Rome). Today, I want to ask another question. Are empires evil by definition? Or, if I may pose the question theologically, is it God’s will that empires exist? I am going to give my answer later. I would like to hear yours first.
Empires can be evil and God wills good and wicked nations to rise to power in order to accomplish his purposes.
It’s hard to imagine an empire that would not be evil, being that an empire is a large collection of people (evil by nature) connected with one common purpose (bound to be less than righteous). I’m not a historian, but I’m not aware of any theocracies that were the emblem of righteousness. Given that circumstance I don’t expect anything more out of democracies, republics, communist states or any form of government/empire between.
To answer the second question it may be best to remember Joseph’s wisdom in telling his brothers that what they meant for evil God meant for good.
Given the nature of depravity, absolute power, as the adage goes, corrupts absolutely. All political structures ultimately fail in the task of establishing justice and order in society because all political structures are implemented by unrighteous people. However, empires can be and have been used by God to accomplish His purposes on earth (i.e., His work through the Babylonians in exiling His people and through Cyrus in delivering His people). Perhaps a better question could be, Why did God pronounce judgment on the empires of old, such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, etc.? He used them for His purposes, but He also pronounced judgment on them for their arrogance and their injustices towards the other nations. Are those essential to empire-building?