Is the US an empire? Group in Tampa says yes

06/30/11 Kate Bradshaw
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When they hear the word empire, many people think of Rome, Babylon, Britain, or the USSR. But today a group in Tampa talked about imperial aspects of the United States. Just ahead of the country’s two-hundred-thirty-fifth birthday, a United Church of Christ workshop revealed an imperial America they say varies greatly from the vision of the nation’s founders.

Reverend Tom Warren is with a United Church of Christ congregation in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. In talking about America as an imperial power, he read from a speech then-Secretary of State Quincy Adams gave to the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821.

"The United States, these are his words, goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She knows well that by once enlisting under other banners then her own she would involved herself beyond the power of extrication. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. She might become the dictatress of the world. I think that's how it's said, dictatress. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."

Warren said America’s indigenous population might not agree, but the ideas of freedom and exceptionalism are engrained for most Americans. He followed Adams’ quote with a more recent one.

"This is a quote by an unnamed senior advisor to the Bush administration. I searched around the internet and most people think this is Karl Rove. It probably fits. But apparently this unnamed senior advisor said that 'Objective reality no longer matters very much. That's not the way the world really works anymore,' this official said. 'We are an empire now and when we act we create our own reality.' "

Reverend Joyce Hollyday of Asheville, North Carolina-based Circle of Mercy UCC, said the United States falls pretty squarely under the definition of empire.

"We economically control much of the world. We politically and militarily control much of the world. We're about military campaigns in many places. Resources from all over the world are coming to support our way of life here. The standard statistic now is that the United States is less than 5 percent of the global population, we consume more than a quarter of the resources."

Today’s conference examined other components of an empire, including religious and economic. Warren said religious indoctrination – subtle or otherwise – is a key tool for any imperial power.

" My understanding is that you can't understand Jesus as lord if you don't also understand that Caesar was lord first. It is about a reclaiming of Jesus from the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana."

He said there are many instances in the Christian Bible where an imperial message conflicts with that of the book’s central actors, something centuries of re-interpretation have mixed up even further. Joyce Hollyday said the book of Revelations is a striking example of this.

"It has been used a lot to talk about an apocalyptic vision of the end times. Whereas I think it's actually speaking in very dramatic imagery to our current situation. It begins with John writing letters to the churches and there is the belief that because the Book of Revelation was written from exile on the isle of Patmouse that it was a time of persecution for the church but actually commentators now generally agree that it was a time of seduction for the church. The Chrisitians were being seduced by the power of the empire, which I think is also the kind of moment that we are in right now."

She said even though the consensus among biblical scholars has changed, it hasn’t caught on in mainstream America – if May’s rapture frenzy is any indication. She said the fire and brimstone imagery used in Revelation was mostly metaphor, but it sure is good at striking fear among a population that gets its social and moral cues from scripture.

"We have many, many messages of fear around us. I think this is just one more way of getting people to live in the fear rather than living, trying to make space for all of us on the earth."

Edie Rasell is minister of economic justice with UCC Justice and Witness Ministries. She spoke about the ways in which certain economic policies can further the interests of an empire.

"When we talk about empire the whole purpose, in my view, is to get stuff; money, raw materials, goods, whatever it's going to be to benefit us from the rest of the world. We do this primarily not by military means but through the rules that govern our economic system. The rules right now are the rules governing what we call globalization and they're rules like what we call free trade, free investment."

She said a key example of this is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has weakened the middle and working class in the name of cheap goods and corporate profits.

"The result of that has been we do sell more to Mexico, but we have had a lot of firms move to Mexico, get cheaper workers down there and then they sell the stuff back to the United States. They get a lot of profit because they get it made very cheaply. We lose all of our jobs but we get cheap goods."

For many in attendance, there was a tie between the economics of empire and religion. Greg Stevens lives in Ybor City and belongs to an organization that aims to help the poor and homeless.

"I'm a part of an underground network and we're kind of a mission organization that is attempting to be some sort of redemptive voice on the margins of society. We, a lot of us come from kind of white elite backgrounds and we're attempting to serve the less fortunate with kind of a white elite mindset and we realized it didn't work so to stand in solidarity with those we are working with we moved and became poor."

He said examining the US as an empire helps him better understand how and why poor have been marginalized -- and maybe even do something about it.

"I think that the margins are there because of the empirical powers that are at hand, financially and what not. The structures there, the economic structures and so to know about the structures that are creating the margins and are pushing me to the margins are kind of one of the reasons I would say that I am here."

The UCC has several demonstrations planned, including one Sunday night at MacDill Air Force Base.

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