Empire and Kingdom

Most of us grew up on stories of the empire: Star Wars, Star Trek, Fellowship of the Ring. And now we are living in the empire—the American Empire. This prepares us for the tension between empire and kingdom that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

All of the biblical story is framed by the presence of empire—those multi-national power centers that shape culture, economics, politics, and even religion. Empires wage war and make peace; empires rise and fall, come and go.

Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome—these are the empires whose fortunes create the landscape upon which the narrative of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and John is enacted.

Think of Abraham, who was told to leave “Ur of the Chaldeans” which is at the center of the Chaldean (or Babylonian) Empire; he settles on the fringe of the empire, in Haran. Later Abraham leaves altogether and moves to Canaan. God wants to do something through his family that he cannot do through the Empire. “I will bless the world through you and your descendents,” God said to Abraham.

Then there is Moses, leading his people—the Hebrews—out of the Egyptian Empire; we call it the Exodus.

David aspired to have his own empire, even though God did not want it. Much of the Hebrew Bible describes the ebb and flow of power and religion in the empire of the Israelites.

Daniel the prophet interprets the famous vision of Nebuchadnezzar: Daniel chapter two. The head of gold is Babylon; the chest of silver is a succeeding empire; the legs of bronze is another, and finally the feet of iron and clay are the last empire before the appearance of the kingdom of God.

Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire and Paul was repeatedly imprisoned. John was exiled to the island of Patmos where he saw the visions that now comprise the last book of the Bible: Revelation. It is all about the great evil empire—Rome—and its persecution of Christians.

All of this offers believers today—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—a helpful way to interpret the American Empire. How does one dwell in the Empire and still live under the rule of God.

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