The Common Good
November-December 2003

Compassionate Imperialism

by Diana Butler Bass | November-December 2003

Even if Christendom is only a vague European memory, the United States
suffers from a sort of Constantinian hangover. The Emperor Constantine just won't go

Even if Christendom is only a vague European memory, the United States suffers from a sort of Constantinian hangover. The Emperor Constantine just won't go away. Nor will the problems he created when he conflated the City of God and the City of [Humanity]. As contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains Augustine's view of empire: "The earthly city knows not God and is thus characterized by order secured only through violence" [The Hauerwas Reader]. Empires always rule by the sword. Is anything else possible? Even Augustine would say no. Christian empire is an oxymoron, an earthly impossibility....

How does a Christian live in empire? Especially when that empire claims, in some way, the blessing of the Christian God? God's reign of peace, a kingdom of love, where swords are beaten into plowshares? What of Jesus' words, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near" (Mark 1:14). Were such promises a cruel joke, a scriptural taunt of what never will be? How to live in the empire and not be of it? September 11 forced me to come to terms with Stanley Hauerwas' assertion: "How to understand the relation between the two cities [is] the central issue for the development of what comes to be called Christian social ethics."

When the president thinks of Christian social ethics, however, I feel fairly confident that no one at the White House understands the complex and subtle doctrines of the two cities—and the implications of that tradition for nation building and empire—especially by people who claim the biblical God on their side. Given the historical record, I am pretty sure that compassionate imperialism will not work. And, as I theologically contemplate the National Security Strategy, this new Bush doctrine, I inwardly hear the warning given by the ancient prophet Zephaniah: "Is this the exultant city that lived secure, that said to itself, ‘I am, and there is no one else'? What a desolation it has become, a lair for wild animals! Everyone who passes by it hisses and shakes the fist" (Zephaniah 2:15).

Such is the fate of unilateral empires.

From the forthcoming book

Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Christian Citizenship, by Diana Butler Bass. Jossey-Bass.
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