I know I am not the only one who has noticed that all the Christians comparing the USA to the Roman Empire during the reign of George W. Bush are strangely silent now that we are under the emperorship of Barack Obama. And yet, how much of President Obama's foreign policy looks virtually the same as his predecessor.
I've been very aware of this absence as well and find it quite revealing. Here is what I wrote (slightly edited) in a lengthy comment.
The defining feature of Empire is its totalitizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how and empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves how it subjugates those who reside in the empire.
Liberals have used the Empire motif for American international interventions under Republican leadership. It is a characterization worthy of reflection. But what about the Empire building of progressivism?
Not long before being elected senator, Obama talked of a Second Bill of Rights … channeling FDR. It is a common mindset shared by the left. The original Bill of Rights lists “negative” rights, telling what the government will not do. The Second Bill of Rights would be “positive” rights guaranteeing everyone a home, health care, education, recreation, and so on. In other words, government moves from being a referee for free and virtuous people taking responsibility for themselves and their communities to government being the direct or indirect provider of every aspect of our basic existence. Every sphere of life … business, education, medicine, compassionate care … becomes an extension of government management used toward government’s guarantee of positive rights. All institutions and traditions in our various spheres of life are made to serve the Empire.
If you’ve read much of Roman history you will know that Rome was a Republic until just a couple generations before Christ was born. There was some separation of powers and checks on power in a system governed by patricians and plebes, each with their own pyramidal network of client/patron connections. With the rise of the Empire, Augustus and later Caesars began to portray Rome as a household with Caesars as the paterfamilias of the household. All other households were now clients to the one household of Caesar.
At Christ's birth there was still a considerable distribution of social strata running from senator to slave. But over the next two or three centuries, freedoms eroded while land and produce was steadily siphoned away from citizens by powerful government elites to the point that the elaborate hierarchy of Roman society had been flattened to a handful of wealthy elite and everyone else. That was the Empire that had just found its legs during the era of the N.T. Church.
Thus, Empire isn’t just about international expansionism but bringing every sphere of life under one authority placing those spheres into the service of that authority. True Anabaptists that I have known over the years get that. That is why they come out from society to be a separate witness. What I don’t get are the self-proclaimed Hauerwasian Emergent style Anabaptists who level the Empire critique against Republican internationalism while actively and fervently campaigning for social progressivism. It strikes me merely as social progressivism dressed up in spiritual language.
I’m not an Anabaptist but neither do I believe political solutions are the primary answer to most human problems. The threat of Empire is ever present yet I believe we are called to be present in all spheres of human life, and discerning how best we can continue to nudge our communities and structures toward a more shalom –filled world. My experience is that most of the Empire talk has little to do with robust theological analysis and much to do with legitimizing political agendas.