Friday, December 31, 2010

Sermon: "God's Kingdom & Caesar's Empire" (Delivered 12-19-10)

In August, 2010, writer Glenn Greenwald published a story in which he collected stories from major newspapers on cuts that cities and states have made because of budget woes:

An August 6, 2010 story in the New York Times detailed how various cities and states were dealing with shrinking budgets. It mentioned that while many government agencies and businesses have furloughed employees to save money, the State of Hawaii took it one step further, furloughing its school children for 17 school days during the 2009-2010 school year, thereby giving Hawaii the shortest school year in the country.

That New York Times piece also mentioned Clayton County, Georgia, which on March 31, 2010, suspended its public transportation services entirely, stranding 8,400 bus riders. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs, Colorado trimmed its police force, auctioned off police helicopters, and switched off a third of its more than 24,000 streetlights as a cost-saving measure.

A July 17, 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal took us to Jamestown, North Dakota, where town governments have discovered that they can save more than $72,000 per mile by turning paved roads back to gravel roads. According to the story, North Dakota is not alone, “In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as ‘poor man's pavement.’ Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.” The Wall Street Journal article goes on to quote a professor at Purdue University who has convened a seminar on this trend entitled “Back to the Stone Age.” Experts caution that this approach is pennywise and pound-foolish. The smoothing and grading of gravel roads can be costlier than paving; the surface damages automobiles and raises fuel costs; and it hurts local businesses that depend on traffic from those who enjoy driving America’s blue highways. Despite these arguments, cities and states have been unable to raise taxes to pay for the needed road maintenance.

Back in February of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported on a State Senator from Utah named Chris Buttars who authored a bill to eliminate the twelfth grade in the State of Utah, in order to help solve Utah’s budget deficit.

Finally, Greenwald cites a story in the August 6, 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer where it was reported that the city of Camden, New Jersey would close its public libraries as a cost-saving measure. “All materials in the libraries would be donated, auctioned, stored, or destroyed. That includes 187,000 books, historical documents, artifacts, and electronic equipment. Keeping materials in the shuttered buildings is a fire hazard, officials said, and would make them vulnerable to vandalism and vermin.”

Greewald concludes, “Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries, and streetlights – or once it chooses not to be able to afford these things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast surveillance and National Security State – that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability?”

A lot of my thinking as of late, as well as my reading as of late, has centered on the broad theme of empire and, more specifically, on:
What it means to live as a part of the American Empire – because I think the term fits;

What it means for the American Empire to be in decline – because I think it can be argued that it is; and,

What our role as individuals and as a community should be as the citizens of a declining empire.
My reading and study has helped me to examine empire in terms of international relations and military strategy, in terms of economics, in terms of culture, in terms of politics, and in terms of ethics, morality, and theology.

I’ve been reading books such as Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, which talks about how spectacle replaces learning when empires teeter and how culture becomes dominated by bread and circus illusions. And, I’ve read Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules, a book about our self-defeating military policy of global power projection, global policing, and pre-emptive war. I’ve read Michael Lewis’ treatments of the economic crisis and seen Inside Job, a documentary film on the same subject.

This morning, my words are going to be about empire, the meaning of empire, and the meaning of the decline of the American Empire. Just as it has been my tradition to preach on a negative emotion or a spiritual affliction on the first Sunday of December, it has been my tradition to preach on a heavy, intense topic on the Sunday before Christmas. I do this not because I figure that it is a Sunday when we are likely to get good attendance, but because I don’t think our Holidays should be superficial, and I think it is too easy to sentimentalize and make superficial the meaning of Christmas. The secular celebration of Christmas has been co-opted by cultural imperialism. The plot of the Biblical Christmas story begins with empire, and cannot be correctly understood apart from a critique of empire.

But, before we get to the Christmas story, let me say some words about empire. To say that the American Empire is in decline is a provocative and troubling statement. If, in saying that it is, I am speaking the truth, we might as well put everything else on the back burner because this understanding is going to raise all sorts of important and crucial questions. Namely, it demands that we ask what we should be doing right now and that we speculate about what we might be in store for.

As Unitarian Universalists we don’t really talk at all about the end of the world. Well, at least we don’t talk about the end of the world in purely religious terms. Religiously, we don’t talk about the apocalypse or the end times. You’ll never hear any mention of the rapture, or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and I’ll never give a sermon about revealing the secret prophecies in the Book of Revelation. These ideas don’t appear within our register. Theologically, this is not what we do. It is not who we are.

But, we do have a strong strand of the apocalyptic in our thinking. It manifests itself not in our theology but in our social concern. The apocalyptic is very much alive in our concern about global climate change and the threat of extinction, famine, storm, and disaster that is so much a part of the threat posed by global climate change.

From the 1960s to the 1990s liberal religion led the call for nuclear disarmament and Unitarian Universalists were well represented in their leadership of local chapters of SANE/FREEZE. This call for a nuclear freeze and for nuclear non-proliferation was based very much on the concern that the end of the world need not come any sooner than it naturally would.

I think when we talk about something like the end of the American Empire there is a sense of, if not the apocalyptic, then, certainly, the fearful.

I want to use Friday’s newspaper to demonstrate what I mean. On Friday the Kansas City Star carried an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The headline of the piece was decidedly nationalist: “There’s only America A, No Plan B.”

Declaring that “a failing U.S. is not an option,” Friedman writes, “If America goes weak… and cannot project power the way it has, your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world. You will not like who picks up the pieces.” [Emphasis mine.] His op-ed is full of apocalyptic fear. Friedman then brings up what he considers the greatest threats to America A. On one hand he contrasts the United States with China and mentions Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was represented in Oslo by an empty chair because Xiaobo is being held as a political prisoner in China for the crime of promoting democracy.

Friedman then mentions a second threat to American dominance. The second threat is not a growing superpower with a shameful record when it comes to human rights. No, the second threat Friedman names consists of rogue individuals such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. These “superempowered individuals,” as Friedman calls them, threaten to plunge the world into anarchy. Friedman concludes, “The alternative today to a world ordered by American power is not some cuddly… system… It is half China and half-superempowered individuals. Managing that will never be easy. But it will be a lot easier with a healthy America, committed to its core values, powerful enough to project them and successful enough that others want to follow our lead.”

There is so much that is deeply troubling in Friedman’s analysis. There is also the deeply bizarre. There is plenty to dislike about Julian Assange, but his rising to world superpower status seems to me to be a laughable proposition. But, beneath his delusional statements, there are dangerous statements. Friedman longs for a world in which the United States is able to, quote, “project power the way it has.” That is the essence of empire.

There was a funny story my father told me as a kid that was more than a funny story. It also functions as a meaningful parable. The story involves a group of boys out camping on a cold night and deciding that they need to keep their fire going all night long to stay warm. Having made camp after dark, the boys start a campfire and gather up all of the wood in the area that is illuminated by the fire. But soon they have gathered all of the wood inside of the visible area around the fire. With their fuel supply dwindling, the survival of the fire is endangered. So, the boys decide to start a second bonfire so that they can see more wood to fuel their fire. But, the problem is that they now have to gather wood for two fires. And, next thing you know, they have nine bonfires going and all of the campers are running frantically to keep the original bonfire and all eight of the outlying bonfires going. The system collapses on itself. Hold this image in your mind while you consider that:

According to Andrew Bacevich, “The United States currently has approximately 300,000 troops stationed abroad,… more than the rest of world combined (a total that does not even include another 90,000 sailors and maries who are at sea); as of 2008, according to the Department of Defense, these troops occupied or used some 761 ‘sites’ in 39 foreign countries, although this tally neglected to include many dozens of U.S. bases in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

In the same vein, Chris Hedges writes, “We embrace the dangerous delusion that we are on a providential mission to save the rest of the world from itself, to impose our virtues — which we see as superior to all other virtues — on others, and that we have the right to do this by force… [Our international escapades] are doomed to failure. We cannot afford them… The costly forms of death we dispense on one side of the globe are hollowing us out from the inside at home.”

Hedges, never one to pull his punches, continues, “Imperialism and democracy are incompatible. The massive resources and allocations devoted to imperialism mean that democracy inevitably withers and dies. Democratic states and republics, including ancient Athens and Rome, that refuse to curb imperial expansion eviscerate their political systems.”

Mindful of everything that I’ve just said about empire, listen to these familiar words from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel,
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own towns to be registered and taxed. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem… He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn.
This story is set inside of a narrative about empire. Outside of empire this story loses its meaning. Empire forces Joseph and Mary to take their journey, to travel to Bethlehem so that they can be taxed to fund the Roman army, the excesses of Caesar’s court, and a tax-payer funded coliseum in Rome. One thing is for sure: the taxes that Joseph and Mary pay won’t come back to them in terms of social services.

At the other end of the story of the life of Jesus, we find what I consider to be one of the most powerful passages in the Gospels. It is the scene in John’s Gospel in which Pontius Pilate questions Jesus. Pontius Pilate is the voice of empire. He can only see the world through the lens of empire. His interrogation of Jesus is awkward, because their understandings of the world is not on the same register. Pilate asks, “Are you King of the Jews? So you are a King?” And, Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world.” They are speaking to each other on different levels. One empire trades in power projection, military dominance, class stratification, and cultural arrogance. The other kingdom trades in love, compassion, and radical equality.

[Take a moment to watch this scene as interpreted by director Martin Scorcese in his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Jesus and David Bowie - !!! - as Pontius Pilate.]

When I shared with a member of our congregation that I had been on a kick reading and writing about the decline of the American empire, she responded, sarcastically, “I just don’t know how people in Sweden, Denmark, or France can live with themselves. They wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and have to face the fact that they aren’t #1. They must suffer from low self-esteem.” I responded to her and suggested that they probably take consolation in their government-run health care programs, excellent social services, and beaucoup vacation-time.

Remember the words of Thomas Friedman. “If America goes weak… and cannot project power the way it has, your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.” However, if America continues to follow the course of empire, if it continues to project power the way it has, the cost will be even more dilapidated schools, roadways turned back to gravel, and social services, from health clinics to libraries, shuttering their doors. We will live in the abandoned places of empire. The cost of occupation means that our stables will have to double as maternity wards. Friedman, in his op-ed, sees the world through the lens of empire, where power projection and military might matter most.

There is a different world, a world that Jesus could see and that Pilate could not, a world that Jesus called “The Kingdom of God” as opposed to the Roman Empire. It is a world in which the poor are clothed and fed, the prisoners are cared for, the children and the widow are provided for. Even when, especially when, our politicians and our tycoons can only see the world through the lens of empire, we must continue to lift up this vision of a different world.