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How will the fall of the American Empire affect the church?
The end of an era
Paul Krugman told us a few weeks ago that the American Empire was falling. All of my radical Christian friends who have thought of the Empire as militaristic, materialist, and racist might have celebrated upon hearing the news. And even though I count myself among them, I wasn’t sure if it was the best thing for the moment. And I primarily think this because it wasn’t the Kingdom of God that rubbed up against the Empire causing it to fall apart; the church wasn’t converting ICE agents to Jesus (like our Lord converted a Roman centurion while he was on the cross) and therefore crumbling the infrastructure of the Empire. Krugman argues that it’s falling apart because the U.S. is compromising its value and its ideals, while also sacrificing what he calls benign force. Krugman considers that the U.S. is shrinking itself by becoming an international bully, a marked difference from what it was before.
The current administration’s isolationist, protectionist policy is both shrinking the U.S.’s reputation as a world leader and limiting its economic “greatness.” Because Trump is still interested in expanding and securing the U.S.’s military might, it changes the architecture of the republic in a sense, according to neoliberals like Krugman. I would add that the philosophies from the Enlightenment that built the U.S. are corroding. The period of postmodern thought and social construction that emerged combated some of the forgone conclusions from the dominant groups of people in Europe. But now, that same tool is being used to undermine both truth and morality. Peace and prosperity are under assault, but so are truth and morality.
As a student of history, I’m interested in Krugman’s theory, even if I disagree with how he argues for America as a net-positive experiment. I don’t feel particularly antagonistic toward that idea, but my hope has never been in America, but fully in Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection. Hallelujah!
Nevertheless, the fall of the American Empire will teach us many things and things that are noteworthy for the church. The “fall of the American Empire” is a tantalizing phrase, but try not to get distracted by that as I try to draw us to places that I think serious Christians need to go.
The benefit of peace: Pax Americana and Pax Romana
One of the reasons that I’m interested in the change of the American landscape is not because the previous one was holy and good, but rather because the global leadership, and peace and prosperity, actually did create an environment for Christian faith and the gospel to grow. The risk with that peace, though, is that Christians become too fused with the empire; that there isn’t enough of a contrast between the peace of the Empire and the way of Jesus. The need for the Gospel isn’t as evident when things are groovy, and so we might question the depth of the discipleship of Christians, but in general a peaceful and prosperous time expands faith.
The same was true, in my opinion, for Pax Romana and the expansion of Christianity. The basic Roman infrastructure offered many things that allowed for easy travel and commerce, making it easier for the Gospel to spread. I think this is an often understated point in our understanding of early Christianity. It’s noteworthy that the Bible writers don’t emphasize it because while they are taking advantage of the opportunity, they aren’t preoccupied with it, nor do they see it as a blessing.
This is not to say that Christianity should be a product of a prosperous culture, simply that it can thrive in that culture. The apostles still directly combatted the ways of the world and they still spoke and acted prophetically. And we should against the American Empire, too.
However, that era may be coming to end. I think it’s just important to note that, simply to prepare for how to continue God’s world redemption project. I have generally assumed that things are going to get bad, that the government will harm and not protect people, and that the world will be antagonistic toward our faith. I’m following Jesus who said that we’ll have trouble in this world, and because it hated him, it will hate us. But it is true there are better and worse forms of that.
The opportunity of “persecution”
I’m not prepared to say that persecution necessarily leads to the expansion of Christianity. Tertullian’s famous words, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” needs to be tested, I think. If you want a counter-example of that, watch Martin Scorcese’s Silence or read my review of it. We should use every opportunity to advance the Gospel, even under difficult circumstances, but I know Christians in persecuted areas around the world and they would love more freedom of religion (not less of it). However, they never mistake their faith for the state, which is a problem in the aforementioned periods of peace, both in Rome and in Christianity.
It should be noted that even though Paul and his comrades enjoyed some Pax Romana, they ultimately endured the brutality of Nero and they were martyred. Their stories extended afterward, but it wasn’t just legends of their deaths that expanded the movement. Constantinian imperial sponsorship helped the cause, organized the faith, and gave it a big boost, too. I say this with trepidation because I also think Constantine did a lot of damage to the faith, some of which still echoes to today.
An alliance with the state is a great temptation for the believers, though. God rebuked Israel when it allied with foreign powers for military might. Jesus rebuked the Saduccees (the leading Jewish political party in the time of Jesus) for their cozy relationship with Hellenism at large, as well as the rulers of the time. Anabaptists have been critical of the state church that dominated Europe for a thousand years too, and today we see the dwindling results of it. When Christianity becomes a part of the state apparatus, it has a limited shelf life, as the powers move on to other people to take advantage of. Today we see it in Evangelicals in the U.S., who are less of a social movement, and more of a consistent voting block. They are more interested in maintaining their subculture (or perhaps how America used to be), than advance the Gospel. They are protectionists, to put it figuratively. All of these alliances can potentially damage the faith, and we need to be cautious of that.
And so while I want to be prepared for the fall of the Empire, the difficulty, turmoil, poverty, militarization, and environmental degradation that may follow may offer an opportunity to Christians to brightly shine the Gospel. The fall of the American empire is costly, one way or the other, but God is faithful and we do not need to despair, because our hope is in him and never has been in the state. This might just be the reminder we need to remember that reality.
A final warning, though
I’ve written so far about how the church is immediately impacted by the political economy and context it finds itself in. I’m interested in the occasion we find ourselves in because I can’t escape it! I want to bring the Gospel to the present with great flexibility, our theology and missiology comes from the “ground up.” Everyone's faith is informed by their culture and occasion. All faith is contextual. No one has a direct line to God. Most liberationists have a good idea of this. It's not surprising that dominant groups don't, though. The most dangerous thing about culture influencing your truth is being unaware about how it is.
But, as you can see, anything we build, whether it’s the United States as the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment, or the basics of truth and morality, is easy to topple. It takes care and intention to sustain a movement. So for a moment, rather than imagining how the church will survive in the next era, what can we learn from the American empire and its potential fall?
First of all, no one will keep it going if you don’t. And quite honestly, money is a part of that. The entitlement that wealthy democracies bring their citizenship has an expiration date. Even in a nation-state the money doesn't exactly come from "other." And the most entitled we are to the empire's luxury, the more likely it'll fade away. Don't allow our previous success to fool us into thinking that it will last unattended. For the church, that means we care for our common work, we share in common in a covenantal way. We share because it expands our generosity and distributes power, but it also has practical benefits too. We pay staff and rent, for example. We share money with those who need it too, here and around the world.
Second of all, we need to nurture disciples that continue the movement we built. They continue to share their time to help the enterprise function. We need people to do the work of the church, to be sure. If you think it’s someone else’s job, we might be dead before we know it. I fear that many American politicians just thought the project would continue unattended, and I think many Americans share that assumption.
Finally, and this is exactly what Barack Obama in his final civil religion sermon warned us of, we need too keep sharing faith and heart. Obama said that what will keep this country together is faith in it. I’m not interested in putting faith and trust in chariots or horses. But I do know that trust and faith in Jesus and what he will do through us is essential to keeping our movement going. It’s not dependent on hyper-responsible people, or by super-charismatic leaders, either. God is using us as God’s tools, but God will enact world redemption and we help only through God’s power, not through our own will. I hope that comforts you in these uncertain times, but also moves you to act. You are serious enough for that.