Why do we desire empire?

The definition of empire, regardless of the type of empire, is that it is run by one person.

With that in mind, I just don’t get the desire to move towards empire. Now, let’s be honest, no one is out there saying they want an empire. But people say it without using words. Why is there a push for more authoritarian systems? They are a form of empire with one person in charge and making the decisions.

Why are people drawn to this?

Is it because we think we’ll benefit some how from an empire and it’s way of operating?

Really? Have we not seen how empires work? Have we not read about them in history? There’s usually some folks who kind of benefit from an empire – at least on the surface. But in reality, no one does. Everyone is controlled by the empire and the person in charge. Absolute power corrupts absolutely according to Lord Acton. He wasn’t wrong. When one has absolute authority they come to think of themselves as a god who can do whatever they want to whomever they want. And that includes discarding people who have been loyal if they want to just to make a point. Loyalty doesn’t even protect a person in an empire.

That’s because empires all operate on the same basic set of values – the ends justify the means, the strong survive, and might makes right. It’s why everyone dreams of deposing the emperor too – so they can be the top dog with all the power. Except there isn’t any real power in an empire. There is constant fear. Fear of being deposed. Fear of attack. Fear of uprising. Fear of loss of control. Fear of criticism. Fear of the empire falling. Fear. Empires are based on fear, have fear as their core value, and operate using fear to get what they want. Fear is never a solid foundation in which to build anything.

None of this is new. Even Scripture addresses the idea of absolute authority in civil government:

“So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

(Source: NRSV – 1 Samuel 8:10-18)

Samuel was a prophet of Yahweh and delivered the above message to the people when they clamored to be just like the other nations and have a king. Why do people do this? It never ends well. Ever. Show me an example in history in which a system that puts all power in the hands of one person turns out well. Doesn’t matter if that system is communist or fascist, a theocracy, or anything else. It never ends well. There is wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth, to put it mildly.

Count me out of wanting an empire. I have no desire for anyone to have absolute authority and I won’t be swearing allegiance to anyone who claims it either. Just go ahead and mark me down for that right now so that it’s not a surprise should that situation ever occur – which I pray to God will never happen. Although there seems to be some folks who seem pretty bent on moving us in that direction.

The desire for power is addicting to people. They think that if they are around it, they will benefit from it and possibly get some it. They won’t. Any power they have will be temporary and will ultimately be used against them. Never make a deal with a tyrant. Because tyrants believe that the ends justify the means – that means they will lie in order to get what they want and when they get what they want, they discard anyone who is an inconvenience.

While I don’t know why people have this irrational desire for power and control through empire, I do know this – we are called to something much better. Something much healthier. Something that leads to thriving life.

Mary declared this so long ago in her Magnificat. Listen to the words of a poor, pregnant teen. Listen to how revolutionary her words are about toppling empires and replacing them with God’s kingdom and God’s way.

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

(Source: Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

Empires all fall. They have to. Because they think they are an all powerful god. But they aren’t. They are pathetic. They crumble and fall by way of criticism which they can’t handle. They fall as soon as one person refuses to comply with their control. They fall from their own corruption and internal ethical rot. They fall because the burden of twisting and torturing the truth is too great a weight to carry. They fall because no matter what power they think they have, they can’t change reality to their own liking – they don’t have the power to do it. They fall because they kill themselves fighting over power. They fall because they are abusive and exploitive and everyone suffers in them. They fall because at some point everyone knows that the emperor has no clothes and dies like everyone else. As much as an empire likes to think it is special and unique and divine – in reality, it’s predictable, far too common, and evil. An empire is the antithesis of God’s kingdom. That’s why all empires fall. Thanks be to God!

May all empires fall. May all who aspire to absolute power be scattered. May all who seek powerful thrones be thrown down. May all who are fattened off of exploitation be sent away hungry. And in their place, raise up the lowly, the outcast, and those who are hungry for God’s kingdom. Thanks be to God!

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