When Russia invaded Ukraine, I asked Rev. Osagyefo Sekou for his hot take on the situation. Rev. Sekou is a brilliant theologian and political analyst (who also happens to be my co-pastor) and, as a protégé of Dr. Cornel West, he often has long, erudite, complex insights on geopolitical conflagrations. In this instance, however, his reply was simple: “Empire gonna be Empire.”
Indeed, for all the confusion on the part of most Americans on the rationale of this war, it is tragically logical within the mindset of Empires. I am intentionally capitalizing “Empire” here because the term has a particular meaning among theologians. Namely, “Empire” signifies a military, political and economic structure that uses force to amass power and resources. The Bible, for all its limitations, contains great wisdom about the behavior of Empires. The Bible tells the story of the Jewish people surviving the Egyptian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire and the Roman Empire.
One of the clear lessons of the Bible is that Empire is insatiable. Empires crave conquest and control. There is no endgame; there is just the hunger for consumption. Often, Empires employ propaganda justifying their aggression as a form of “defense” akin to our nation’s so-called Department of Defense (which is a 1947 rebrand from its former and more accurate name, the Department of War). At other times Empires use a propaganda of liberation, as the U.S. did when invading Iraq, or righting “historical” wrongs, as Putin is doing in Ukraine.
The Roman Empire used these tactics, proclaiming Caesar a “savior” when his armies took control of new territories and violently crushed dissent while announcing the “Pax Romana” or peace of Rome. Institutional religious leaders have often been deeply complicit in the work of Empire. We see this with the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leadership has been highly supportive of Putin’s policies over the years.
In the Bible, the Jewish prophets routinely criticize not only invading Empires but also the Jewish ruling class and priestly class for collaborating with Empires or for having their own imperial aspirations. The prophet Jeremiah wrote of these religious collaborators: “[They] say ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace at all. Are they ashamed of the abomination they have committed? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.”
I believe Jesus stands in this tradition as well, turning the tables in the Temple and castigating his fellow countrymen for imperial collaboration in their thirst for a piece of the imperial pie. Like other prophets, he was ultimately executed by an alliance of religious and political elites whose status as purveyors of security and morality he undermined.
But even in the face of Empire and predictable religious collaboration, I am inspired by the surprising number of Russian Orthodox priests who are dissenting. Hundreds have signed a public letter decrying the war, going so far as to say: “We remind that Christ’s blood shed by the Savior for the world’s life will be taken in the celebration of the Communion by those who give murderous orders, not as life, but as eternal suffering.”
That is cold. Good job, Russian priests!
Ultimately, I believe spiritual leaders who believe in liberation must not only condemn unholy wars (aren’t they all?), but also do the long-haul work of inspiring and organizing people toward creative, alternative value systems.
The insatiable hunger for control and wealth and status that Empire, and for that matter capitalism, holds up as that which gives us meaning and value must be countered with a hunger for love, connection, beauty, rest and grace.
Read more of the Mar. 9-15, 2022 issue.