Patterns of Empire

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August 14, 2012

While living in the United States, I thought a lot about J. Nelson Kraybill's "Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation" and I've referred to it here and here on this blog already. I read it shortly after it came out while I was on a personal retreat in Pennsylvania. Whether it was the solitude and reflective space, or whether Kraybill's words just connected with my thoughts and experience, I'm not sure. Either way, several key themes have stayed with me.

As we transition from Virginia, my feelings about the United States have become more complex. Kraybill's comments about the nature of empire come to mind. There is something about the way of the political, economic, and social structure called "empire" that works a certain way. Patterns of these systems can be seen in past empires in Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, and others from history. 
 
The structure of empire at its essence focuses on growth of power in the form of increased territory, economy, political influence, knowledge, or any other aspect which is seen as powerful. People caught in the system of empires, regardless of their position, must serve the structures to continue this growth.  Despite the insistent narrative that empires put together, there is really no freedom for people in this type of mass growth structure. When Paul talks about our fight being not against flesh and blood, it seems to me that these systems of the empire that trap people could be something he's talking about.
 
Seeing the systems at work in the U.S. in areas of immigration, health care, education, justice, and leadership, I recognized these patterns and I feel the oppression of them. The more I learned, the more overwhelmed I felt. I've noticed a strong anger growing in me in response to the evidence of injustice that I witnessed through getting to know immigrants learning English, refugees, international students, educators, and people working within the justice system. I lament the suffering and the oppression that I've learned about and all that I haven't heard.
 
What makes my experience so complex, though, is that I've also had other experiences. I've seen some people trying to change or redeem the system, and others trying to subvert and live out a new way within. In Harrisonburg, there are some very creative and fun initiatives that people have started to get out from under the oppression of continuous growth, such as community gardens and local food movement, a mediation centre and training in restorative justice, and alternative schools experimenting with holistic education. 
 
I look at Jesus' way of response to the empire of his time and place and I realize that his God-rooted, people-focused approach actually takes the power of the empire away. Giving our allegiance and worship to God instead of the empire frees us from the restrictive boundaries of the political, economic and social systems surrounding us and allows to interact with each person at the level of humanity rather than structure. 
 
Allegiance to God rather than the values of the empire changes the lives and attitudes of the people living in a connected community on a daily basis to see where God is at work in transforming both people and structures. 
 
Now I wonder what Canada will be like.
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