Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Enthusiastic about Empire?

'To rejoice in the extent of Empire is not a characteristic of good men.'

- Augustine, De civitate Dei IV.15.

Augustine goes on this chapter to speak of 'a happier state' in which there are 'a multitude of kingdoms in the world, as there are multitudes of homes in our cities.' He thinks that Empire becomes a grisly necessity to restrain greater evil at times: better the Pax Romana than chaos. Is this necessarily the case? Is empire/centralisation always the most effective way of minimising evil? Mightn't evil sometimes be restrained by a mulitiplicity of kingdoms, none of whom has the ability to exert its will on the others?

Either way, Augustine's take on Empire is far more pessimistic and limited than the glorious and benevolent spread of aqueducts, plumbing and democracy sometimes asserted of Rome and her modern daughters.
Important discussion in comments.


Anonymous said...

Well, Rome was pretty grisly, and the time when Augustine was writing was more grisly than some of its other times.

a multiplicity of kingdoms?

Perhaps, but mightn't evil just as easily re-form into a different beast, and corrupt it just as much? Petty factions, parochialism, small-time squabbles...

This is Drew posting. I've switched to Blogger beta, and it won't let me post yet!

byron smith said...

David: I thought monists would be all for empire: one God, one king, one people. If Augustine's a monist (and I don't believe he is, even if there are tendencies), then he's inconsistent... Or at least his monist tendencies only show in his concessions to Empire, despite his criticisms.

Drew: are many little beasts less bad than one big one?

Anonymous said...

are many little beasts less bad than one big one?

That was exactly what I was pondering. However I think the problem is that evil cannot be 'measured' as such. In this case, it's hard to be speculative - it's more a pragmatic approach - what should we do when faced with evil.


Then there is the problem of 'do we recognise said beasties...?'


byron smith said...

I'm not sure about quantifying evil, but I do have a hunch that I would prefer many smaller kingdoms - esp if each recognised the others and none were trying to gain absolute control. This is where O'Donovan is very insightful in arguing that the rule of law is concept inherited from the influence of the gospel. Where is acknowledged as ultimate eschatological king, no 'kingdom' need pretend to be anything other than a provisional penultimate partial and limited minister of God's temporary program to minimise evil prior to the Son's return. Kingdoms in which this is acknowledged will be less likely to turn beastly through attempting to become worldruler (indeed, beastly is the right word: O'Donovan argues that this is precisely what it means to be antiChrist: to attempt to usurp his place as world-ruler. Empire is anti-Christ).

Emma said...

I don't know what monism is, so perhaps I am not qualified to comment here, but my response to your original post, Byron, was to automatically think, not so much of empires in the Roman sense, but the modern day "empires". Not the colonial ones but the ideological ones, the big beast that dresses itself in terms synonymous with justice and "right" in order to gain a hand in mucking about with those powers that aren't on board with it... Rome may have been grisly, but aren't Western "superpowers" transgressing in all kinds of ways and justifying their actions by fighting "wars on terror" etc. I think maybe Augustine has a point about the "multiplicity of kingdoms" being the ideal, but, in the well-post Roman empire world, the reality of globalisation (thanks in part to our dear friend, the nintynet) means that we seem to increasingly polarise into two "empires": us against them... or perhaps three - us, them, and those who are too poor/sick for us to pay much attention to.

well, i guess, when in Rome...

byron smith said...

Thanks Em: monism is the view that deep down, there is really only one thing. I think David (=cyberpastor) was implying that Augustine sometimes seems to be more monist than truly trinitarian - a harsh call, sometimes somewhat justified (though not overall, methinks, even if there are tendencies in his thought that others took further). In particular, a number of recent thinkers have argued that an insufficiently trinitarian picture of God can go together with an imperial project (notice how popular variants of the slogan "one God, one king, one people" pop up throughout the various empires of Europe during the middle ages and colonial times), and (perhaps) notice the trend in militant Islam. And, as you point out, notice the trend in Deist* USA.

* Deism is another form of monist theology, in which God is real, but somewhat distant and uninvolved in the world. He basically set it up and now lets it tick on with maybe the occasional intervention, or maybe not. Most of the founding fathers of the US were Deists.

So yes indeed, thanks for making explicit what has been implicit all along in this conversation: modern empire. We Aussies are a far-flung colony of one empire; are we now trying to become a not-so-far-flung colony of the present one? And yes indeed, globalisation: what does it mean? Is it really about empire? I do think that it is both less and more dangerous than previous versions of the beast. Less, since some aspects of empire have been a little more Christianised than Rome's day. More, since the scope and power of today's empires dwarfs the influence and might of previous ones. Never before has the power of one nation been so much greater than the entire rest of the world. In Rome's day, China, though basically unknown to Europeans, was still of a comparable, if not larger, size.

Rachel said...

"Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use to first, shrink wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead."
-Arundhati Roy

Anonymous said...

I'm going to start out with a reductionistviews and then ask for feedback:
I see all earthly kingdoms as one and the same in some fundmental nature, and in a sense, as all just being members of the one main kingdom - ie of the accuser. The sub-kingdoms or 'colonies' or beasts are different in their 'efficiency'(the degree of opportunity that exists for their 'heads' to effect power over their subjects) and 'personality' (the cultural and exact 'face' of the empire - Eg whether it is a poilitical movement, or sovereign nation, or false religion/cult, or both at once, or corporation, or economic system, or media empire, or terrorist group).

I don't think fundamentally 'new' beasts come along, but rather the beasts are the same in essence - they can just be chimera or shapeshifters - they are always the same beast underneath and they are always going to have an end in the lake of fire.
Their power and danger neither increases nor decreases in a fundamental sense - Can they harm us who are in Christ any more or less than they could in John's day?

What I mean to say is that in Revelation, a beast is a beast - and they are all under the charge of the one lord(Dragon). And the only kingdom that is put in contrast to this is the True Israel, whose Head is The Lion, The Lamb, The Alpha and The Omega, the Lord, the God of Hosts.

As to the answer - I think that we need to consider Christ's teaching on Kingdom - Seeing the establishment of God's kingdom as he taught us to - with righteousness in truth, not by human effort, but by God's power - And give to Caesar what is Caesar's (remembering that Caesar, along with Rome, and Babylon and Israel , is at the mercy of the Lord who showed us mercy in Christ).

Surely these things don't change with the progress of history - until Christ's final return?

Now I'm all confused.
What do you guys think?

byron smith said...

Hugh, thanks for your thoughts. I wonder whether the Bible mightn't sometimes have a more positive view of earthly secular powers than that they are all outposts of the beast all of the time. Despite their capacity to multiply sin (e.g. the highly-organised Shoah during WWII), governments and rulers are also ordained by God to minimise, or at least restrain sin.

And what does the gospel say to rulers who are converted, who submit to Christ as Lord? There is far more to say than 'give up your day job and become a minister'. For all the disasters that Constantine's conversion brought, it was inevitable that at some stage, a ruler would be gripped by the gospel and transformed. What then is Christian rule to look like? Is it also beastly? These are serious questions that have been grappled with for hundreds of years and continue to demand our attention as circumstances change. At this point, I'll cue O'Donovan, the current leading Christian thinker on these matters IMHO.

michael jensen said...

Yes, Byron, you are channelling the good professor at this point!

O'Donovan is often accused of 'Constantinianism', especially by the likes of Stanley Hauerwas and his followers. What I think they mean is that he does see some positive place for state-craft, and a requirement for the church to be at least attuned to it. What were the Christians supposed to do come the Edict of Milan 315 AD? Say to Constantine, 'thanks, but no thanks'?

Of course, the Constantinian arrangement has produced some rather bad fruit: papalism on the one hand, and erastianism on the other. One makes the church into a secular power (the pope having armies for example); the other makes the church merely the puppet of the state (as with the German Christians in the 1930s).

Martyrdom, as ever, provides an interesting point of divergence between the two views. O'Donovan sees martyrdom as a possibility latent in the Christian experience but at times not a necessary path to pursue, when the ruler appears to be genuine in his/her desire to submit to the authority of God. Hauerwas would ask at this point 'why isn't anybody killing us?' and seek to emphasis the points of divergence to such a degree as to produce a violent reaction against the church...
While I am attracted to Hauerwas' radicalism, I am also disturbed by it!

byron smith said...

Yes, Byron, you are channelling the good professor at this point!
Having now read a little more, I am realising how much he is channelling Augustine! (With some important modifications...)