Benediction Online

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back
Matthew 2: 13-233

And so it begins. After the glorious joy of the incarnation comes the reaction. The Empire strikes back. Herod, the puppet of the Roman Empire, is deeply threatened by the reports that a child has been born who fulfills the Jewish prophecies. And so he lashes out, attempting to assassinate his potential enemy and in the process causing significant collateral damage. He orders that all the boys under two years old in Bethlehem be killed. This seems horrific, but Empire demands that lives be sacrificed.

The population of Bethlehem at the time was somewhere between three hundred and one thousand. The total number of children killed has been estimated to be less than 20. Today Bethlehem is in Palestine. In the last decade 1,441 Palestinian children have been killed as a result of the unrest in the Holy Land, that’s 144 children per year, and during the same decade just 124 Israeli children died. During 2009 the United States gave Israel $7 million dollars a day in military aid. Who then is responsible for the deaths of those children? Who is Herod today?

The US has given more money to Israel than to any other single country ever, and has allowed it to use 26% of this money to build up its own arms manufacturing industry. Consequently Israel is now one of the biggest arms suppliers to developing countries.[1] So our tax dollars are being used to support war. If there were no war then arms suppliers would go out of business. Empire gets a lot of income from selling arms and has no incentive to work for lasting peace.

We are implicated in this. It’s our money. It’s our government.

We are citizens of the biggest and most powerful Empire the world has ever known. Like it or not we are intricately caught up in a system which causes pain and oppression. Most of the time we can’t see it. I am sure that some of you are wondering whether the information I just gave you about our aid to Israel is accurate. Empire does not want us to be aware of what’s going on. Empire wants to keep things the way they are because powerful interests are served.

Here’s another example. Recently Michael Pollan was invited to speak at CalPoly. He’s the author who sums up healthy eating as “Eat food, not too much, mainly plants.” But the chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Company threatened not to make a major donation to CalPoly if Pollan was allowed to speak, and so his presentation was turned into a panel discussion. Harris Ranch is the biggest beef operation in the West and is on Interstate 5 near Coalinga. You know it by its smell. The beef industry is the fastest growing sector of global agriculture. Why would such a big operation in such a growing industry feel so threatened by one speaker at a small town university?

According to the Food and Agriculture Department of the United Nations, livestock farming contributes 18% of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Not just because of the methane cows and their manure produce, but also because of the energy the industry consumes and the clear-cutting of forests to make grazing pastures. Stopping eating meat products can reduce the amount you contribute to global warming each year as much as switching your regular car for a hybrid.[2] Our eating habits have implications that go far beyond our kitchens and our own bodies. But Harris Ranch doesn’t want you to change the way you eat because it will reduce their profits. Empire is more concerned about profits than about good health or global warming.

Empire wants things to stay the way they are. Much of the resistance to healthcare reform comes from, where else? The health insurance industry. We probably won’t see the kind of reforms we expected in the financial world either because the finance industry doesn’t want to change and they’re spending millions lobbying in Washington – even more than the health insurance companies.

This is the Empire. All of this is bigger than the individuals concerned. People are caught up in doing what they think is right, just doing their job, just looking out for the future of their company. We’re just paying our taxes and eating what any normal person eats. Empire is bigger than any of us. We get caught up in it and we can’t see out.

For the people of Israel, Pharaoh was the epitome of Empire. God delivered them from Pharaoh and the Empire of Egypt to live a new life, a life where God came first. But it didn’t last long. They weren’t able to resist the tendency toward Empire… by the reign of King Solomon the experiment was over. Everyone had to pay high taxes and many people were forced into hard labor to support the costs of Empire.

Jesus is the way out. Jesus did not compromise. He may not have made a sophisticated analysis of the development and maintenance of Empire, but he was clear. Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give unto God that which is God’s. Since it is all God’s there is nothing left for Empire.

So what are we to do? We are implicated in killing children as well as women and men. We are contributing to global warming all the time. We are trapped in a web of intricate relationships which leads us to exploit people we have never met. People who work to provide food, goods and services which we use, and we have no way of knowing what it cost them to provide for us. Were the shoes I am wearing made in a Chinese prison by a man who was in pain? Were they made in an urban factory where young people lose their health because of unsafe conditions trying to earn enough money to support heir families? I don’t know. What should I do? Stop wearing shoes?


We are called to be God’s people resisting Empire. Resisting a world which is based on profit. Resisting a world which is based on inequality. Resisting a world which is based on image instead of substance and integrity. What that looks like for each of us will be different. Some of us will choose not to watch television so that we are not sucked in by advertising and the constant need for breaking news which feeds insecurity and fear. Some of us will choose not to eat meat or only to eat grass-fed local meat. Some of us will choose to only buy fruit and vegetables that have been grown locally without pesticides. Others will decide to live with less. Some of us will choose to take part in protests, joining Women in Black or other groups such as Central Coast Clergy and Laity for Justice which draw attention to social injustice. Others may decide to withhold a portion of their taxes. Others may decide to only invest in companies which are socially responsible. There are many ways to resist Empire.

According to the writer of Matthew, Joseph took Jesus and Mary to Egypt for safety until Herod the Great had died. So Jesus’ life story parallels that of the Israelites whose formative story is the Exodus – of being brought out of Egypt, of being saved from Empire and brought into freedom.

Joseph did this because of his dreams.

I think this is the key to our resistance. By cultivating our inner life we are given the strength and inspiration to resist. As we develop our spiritual lives we are called to take action. To work on our relationship with God and not translate that into our relationships with others and our outrage and care for those who are exploited is self-indulgent. For us as a community to gather here and enjoy our worship and our fellowship together and not to use that to spur us on to greater resistance, is self-indulgent.

Empire has taken the incredible and outrageous possibility of relationship with the divine and turned it into another consumer good. It is packaged in CDs and books, in perfumes and candles, all promoted as ways to inner peace, and as ways to greater profit for the producers.

As we start a New Year and a new decade, the need to resist Empire is stronger than ever. It is as simple and as complex as living gospel values, living as though Jesus really worked and taught on this earth, living as though we really are the adopted children of God, allowing ourselves to be part of God’s transformative work of love, bringing peace and hope where there is fear and alienation. Together we can challenge each other to resist the many ways that Empire insinuates itself into our lives, dulling our awareness and lulling us into complacency.

The good news of Jesus is as radical today as it was in the time of Herod. Peace on earth and goodwill to all.



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