Low Empire

One of the things we have to get straight is the right relationship of the Church to various manifestations of earthly civil government. And in our setting, in our time, we have to come to grips with American hegemony in the world. That fact is a given — how shall we respond to it?

One common mistake is that of anabaptist pseudo-separation. Another is when the existing (unbelieving) structures coopt the Church — in a grotesque reversal of the image at the end of Revelation, the Church brings her honor and glory into the city of man. The former is the Church against culture, and the latter is the Church under culture, and both are unbiblical and unacceptable.

Christians are called by Christ to infiltrate every level of every society they find themselves in, and to do so without the idolatrous commitments that surround them on every hand. If they are living in a time of empire, it is not ungodly compromise with empire to do this — think of Daniel and Joseph, just for starters. At the same time, temptations to capitulate before the idolatrous pretensions will be common enough — think of Daniel’s three friends.

Think of the phrases high empire and low empire. The former represents the kind of thing you can expect to hear from an idolatrous neocon — America as the world’s last great hope, America as salvific ideal, America as the bringer of democracy to the benighted. Faithful Christians with positions in the government, or in the military, or in international business have an obligation to treat that kind of crap as the silliest thing they ever heard. The latter is the simple recognition that America is a big country in a long series of big countries. There have been big countries before us, and — this is what really provokes the idolaters — there will be other big countries after us.

In the meantime, while we are the big country, we have an obligation to avoid the idolatrous hubris of high empire, the puffed up notions that come so easily to those with an Ozymandian heart. At the same time, the anti-American screechers are just as bad. America is no more the global Demon than it is the Savior. Both the idolaters and the screechers think that America is way more important than it actually is.

Those who understand what low empire is can only do so from a position of strength. The Church is the New Jerusalem, and we stand on her walls. From that vantage, we invite all the nations — and America as just one of them — to bring their honor and glory into the Church.

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