There was a time when many people, at least in Europe, thought that empire was a good thing: It had ended inter-tribal warfare and brought humanitarian emancipation, modern science and technology, and moral and religious enlightenment to the benighted places and peoples of the earth. Those (like me) whose parents were born before 1914 are separated from that era of imperial self-confidence by a single generation. By the end of the First World War, however, several stars in the imperial firmament had fallen, and the future of those that remained was uncertain. Moreover, the fact of imperial dissolution—whether Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian or German or Russian—was given moral impetus when, at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Woodrow Wilson lent American weight to the notion that nations possess a natural right to self-determination. Since then, empires have been identified with “imperialism,” and “imperialism” with oppression and exploitation.
Wilson’s attitude was not surprising. Americans instinctively think of themselves as anti-imperialist. After all, the United States was born out of a struggle to throw off the constraints of the British Empire. According to the conventional patriotic story, the war of 1775–83 vindicated national “freedom” against imperial “tyranny.” Yet, in one of the ironies of history, America itself accumulated a considerable empire during the twentieth century, especially in its final decades. The American empire may be laundered by international institutions and slogans such as the “rules-based international order,” but it is an empire in all but name. It is not, perhaps, administered in the same direct fashion as Britain’s was, but it is certainly as vast and important, and as rigorously policed and controlled. Since the American imperial system offers a far better future for the peoples of the world than do its Russian or Chinese alternatives, Americans need to be clear-minded about its moral legitimacy and their duty to defend it.
A fair account of the American colonies’ struggle for independence can be given, one that shows that the British Empire was not as bad—nor American anti-imperialism as good—as the conventional story supposes. According to this story, the tyranny against which the colonists rebelled was monarchy with absolutist, unconstitutional tendencies, manifested in the arbitrary imposition of intolerable taxes and enforced by brutal military coercion. Here we have the imperialist archetype of empire. But is it an accurate description of the conduct of George III and the British government in that era? Or is this archetype in fact a stereotype? It is true that Whig politicians in Britain believed that the king was subverting the Constitution by using royal patronage to control (buy) Parliament, and that this reading of events influenced their confrères in colonial America. It is true that in 1765 the Grenville ministry unilaterally imposed direct taxation upon the colonies, which was unprecedented, by way of the Stamp Act. It is true that the American colonists did not have direct representation in Westminster. And it is true that the behavior of British troops in and around Boston on the eve of war was sometimes provocative and sometimes brutal.
All this is true, but the following is also true. Contemporary historians judge that Whig anxiety about another resurgence of absolute monarchy in England was altogether overwrought. The buying of political influence by the Crown was a serious problem, but it fell far short of tyranny. (And, one might mischievously point out, the buying of political influence—by private individuals and commercial corporations—is something that many Americans today seem largely untroubled by.)
Moreover, the Townshend taxes had been levied to help defray the costs of the French and Indian War of 1754–63, which had secured the English colonies in America, but at the cost of doubling the British national debt and quintupling the expense of colonial defense and administration. In the event, the taxation scheme was short-lived. Thanks to a combination of American resistance (including mob violence), British mercantile lobbying, and a change of ministry, the Stamp Act was repealed the following year. Besides, that issue rose and fell nine years before the outbreak of war in 1775. The infamous customs duty on tea, which did precipitate war, was quite different: It was an “external” tax, of the sort that had long been used by the imperial government to raise revenue. (Similar import duties were later used by the American government for the same end, and in fact federal taxes of this sort became a bitter bone of contention between Southern and Northern states in the decades before the Civil War.)
On the matter of representation, it is true that the colonies did not elect members of Parliament to Westminster. But they did have agents in London, who recruited British M.P.s to their cause. American views were not unrepresented; and if they had been represented directly, they would not necessarily have prevailed. As for the military abuses, eighteenth-century soldiery was generally unruly and vicious. Come the war, even American patriots did atrocious things. But the most famous instance of British military brutality is surely the Boston Massacre, when bloodthirsty redcoats gunned down innocent civilians—except that, as historians now acknowledge, the redcoats weren’t so bloodthirsty, nor the civilians so innocent.
To this picture, three further factors must be added, which suggest a clash of cultures rather than an anti-imperial rebellion. First, as became clear during the French and Indian War, there was a cultural gap between the American colonists and their British cousins. The latter inhabited a society in which aristocrats expected and received a measure of deference from their social inferiors. The former inhabited a society that comprised a much higher proportion of self-made people, especially independent farmers, to whom social deference did not come naturally.
Second, one of the manifestations of “tyranny” against which the colonists reacted was the British granting of religious tolerance to Roman Catholics in Quebec in the Quebec Act of 1774. Since Roman Catholicism was at the time equated with political tyranny, this act was taken as a further sign of the absolutist tendencies of British government. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The granting of tolerance was merely an act of political prudence (and none the worse for that), aimed at encouraging the Catholic French to live peaceably under British rule.
Third and finally, in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the British had promised Native Americans that colonists would not invade and settle the lands west of the Appalachians. To the colonists, of course, this was another manifestation of “tyranny,” an unwelcome constraint upon what they saw as their natural right to expand—upon their own imperial destiny, if you like. Urging the claims of the United States on the Mississippi Valley against Spain, James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1785:
Nature has given the use of the Mississippi to those who may settle on its waters, as she gave the United States their independence. . . . Nature seems on all sides to be reasserting those rights which have so long been trampled on by tyranny and bigotry. . . . If the United States were to become parties to the occlusion of the Mississippi they would be guilty of treason against the very laws under which they obtained and hold their national existence.
On the natural moral claims of the Native Americans, of course, Madison was silent.
That, then, is the morally complicated history of the war by which the American colonies seceded from the British Empire. To summarize that conflict as a battle between colonial “liberty” and imperial “tyranny” misleads far more than it informs. Yes, the imperial center was remote, both in miles and increasingly in culture. Yes, the representation of the colonists and their interests in the imperial law-making and tax-imposing Parliament was indirect, and so weaker than it could (and arguably should) have been. But the principle that the primary beneficiaries of the French and Indian War should bear a fair share of its costs is incontrovertible; and the practice of “external” taxation by which the government sought to realize that principle had long been established. What is more, in this case it was the empire (and not a democratic consensus in the colonies) that upheld the liberty of Roman Catholics to practice their religion in Quebec, and the liberty of Native Americans not to be invaded—and the empire upheld these liberties against the colonial anti-imperialists. Empires do not always live down to their stereotype, any more than “freedom fighters” always live up to theirs.
Because of their self-identification as anti-imperialists, many American Christians took to interpreting the Bible as anti-empire. This initiative was especially alluring during the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the United States as the world’s sole superpower. In the late 1990s and the first decade of the present century, the topic of empire became fashionable among American scholars of the Bible—and especially the New Testament. Books poured forth instructing the faithful to reject all things imperial: Richard Horsley’s Paul and Empire (1997), Warren Carter’s Matthew and Empire (2001), Horsley’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (2003), John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (2005), and Neil Elliott’s The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire(2008). The moral assumption that informs these scholars’ biblical interpretation is that empire is, basically, wrong. The interpretative conclusion they reach is that the Bible, especially the New Testament, says that empire is, basically, wrong. Thus their implicit, and sometimes not-so-implicit, moral-political conclusion is that, insofar as one regards the Bible’s moral views to be authoritative, the Middle Eastern foreign policy of the administration of George W. Bush was, basically, wrong.
In the final chapter of my 2014 book, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation, I argued that this set of assumptions, biblical interpretation, and moral-political conclusions is very largely mistaken. For the full argument, I must refer the reader to that book. Here, it must suffice for me to reiterate my comments on some of the essays in another collection edited by Richard Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance(2008). Horsley’s main thesis is that Jesus’s mission belonged to the Galilean tradition of direct opposition to the Roman empire. In support of this thesis, he offers several arguments, among them that the stories of Jesus’s exorcisms should be read in light of ethnographic studies of demon-possession among East African peoples. The literature about this phenomenon reports that, in the exorcism cults of these societies, “the names of some of the demons were of invasive foreign forces, such as ‘Lord Cromer’ (the British general who led the military expedition south through the Sudan).” Assuming that what obtained in some parts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa also obtained in first-century Palestine, Horsley argues that the story in the Gospel of Mark (5:1–20) about the exorcism of “Legion” should be read as a symbolic expulsion of Roman troops.
The claim is unpersuasive at many levels. Lord Cromer was not at all a general, but a banker-cum-administrator. His name was Evelyn Baring (as in Barings Bank). When the Egyptian government became unable to finance its debts in the late 1870s—partly because it could not persuade large landowners to pay anything but light taxes—the khedive sought loans from Europe. France and Britain agreed on a bailout, but only on condition that they could appoint administrators to oversee the reform of the Egyptian government’s finances (rather as the European Union behaved toward Greece and Italy after the 2007–08 financial crisis in the eurozone). Evelyn Baring was sent to Cairo to design and implement the reforms. Naturally, the Egyptian ruling classes felt humiliated, and they resented Baring’s autocratic manner—which was exacerbated by his poor opinion of their morale. Consequently, Baring became a hate-figure among anti-imperialists. Nevertheless, writing in 1968, the Egyptian-born historian Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot dismissed nationalist exaggerations of Cromer’s errors, noting his “affection for Egypt” and commenting that his financial policy—“low taxation, efficient fiscal administration, careful expenditure on remunerative public works, and minimum interference in the internal and external traffic of goods—plus Egypt’s powers of recuperation, due to her fertile soil, had by 1890 brought prosperity to the country.”
Horsley’s choice of imperialist demon is unfortunate in a second respect. Lord Cromer was not the general who led British and Egyptian troops up the Nile from Egypt into the Sudan. That was Herbert Kitchener. And what was Kitchener doing invading the Sudan? He was doing the bidding of a British government that had, with the deepest reluctance, bowed to popular pressure and ordered an army to go to the rescue of General Charles George (“Chinese”) Gordon. Why did Gordon need rescuing? Because he was besieged in Khartoum by the Islamist forces of the messianic Mahdi. And what was Gordon doing in Khartoum, and what made some Sudanese seriously unhappy at his presence? Gordon, a very convinced Christian, was intent upon suppressing the slave trade. Horsley’s underlying ideological assumption is falsified by the facts of history: Empire is not always “imperialist” and oppressive, nor are the opponents of empire always emancipators.
As the historical and moral assumptions Horsley brings to the biblical text are dubious, so is his interpretation distorted. Jesus, he tells us, was opposed to the Roman Empire, and that is why the imperialist Romans had him killed. The weakness of the evidence adduced in support of this interpretation exposes its tendentiousness. Horsley’s anti-Roman reading of the story of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, for example, rests entirely on the meaning of the name the possessing evil spirit gives himself: “Legion” (Mark 5:9). This word, of course, can refer to a Roman military unit comprising between five and six thousand Roman soldiers, but it can also denote a large number of all sorts of things. Words are not univocal. So how should we determine the meaning in this case? Are there other elements in the story, as told in the biblical text, that suggest a political, anti-Roman meaning? No, there are not. The New Testament scholar Adela Yarbro Collins has written:
It may be that, in the original form of the account, the “name” Legion was chosen to express an anti-Roman sentiment. . . . There is, however, no theme of opposition to Rome in Mark. . . . The aim of the story is not—at least not primarily—to make a statement about the Romans, but to show how Jesus rescued the man from his plight and restored him to a normal life.
What is more, the text itself tells us how to interpret the evil spirit’s name: “‘My name is Legion,’ he replied, ‘for we are many’”—not, “My name is Legion, for we are Roman.”
By my reading, the material in the New Testament does not convey the judgment that empire as a political form is essentially evil. According to the Gospels, the prime movers of Jesus’s death, if not its final executors, are the Jewish religious authorities, not the Roman imperial ones. The Roman governor, Pilate, appears inclined to tolerate Jesus’s activities, but he vacillates until he is reluctantly maneuvered into doing the will of the rabble-rousing chief priests and elders (Mark 15:1–15; Matt. 27:11–26; Luke 23:1–25; John 18:28–19:16). The Gospels are unanimous in saying that Pilate considered Jesus to be innocent of the political charge against him (Matt. 27:19, 23, 24; Mark 15:14a; Luke 23:14, 22; John 19:6b). In the governor’s person, then, the empire is portrayed as too weak rather than too strong.
There is the further fact that imperial soldiers appear in both the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles as paragons of faith (Matt. 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10; Acts 10:1–11:18). Whatever St. Paul’s criticism of imperial authorities, the politically conservative affirmation in his Epistle to the Romans (13:1–7) of the beneficence of the governing authorities, and of the duty to be subject to them, certainly implies that he did not regard imperial rule as necessarily evil. Indeed, if the Acts of the Apostles is to be believed, he owed his life to imperial intervention, when Roman troops rescued him from a Jewish mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27–37). Finally, though the Johannine condemnation of Roman Empire in the Revelation to St. John is characteristically absolute, what is primarily condemned is its religious idolatry, not its imperial form.
So far, I have argued that history shows that an empire need not live down to its “imperialist” stereotype as an oppressive, exploitative, tyrannical power. Indeed, sometimes its power has been positively emancipatory. I have also argued that recent attempts to read anti-imperialism into the Bible, and especially the New Testament, have foundered on a combination of historical ignorance, mistaken moral assumptions, and the resistance of the biblical text itself. If my arguments are persuasive, American Christians ought to resist the simplistic moralisms of today’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and endless chatter about the evils of “empire.” Given global realities, American Christians need to reckon with the reality that the United States in fact possesses imperial power—and they should argue in the public square that America has a duty to retain that power and to wield it well rather than badly.
The truth is that international affairs have always been characterized by the dominance of some states over others. Asymmetry of power is a fact of international life. The post-1945 presence of international institutions has not removed that asymmetry, and is unlikely ever to do so. The United Nations provides important means of international communication, negotiation, coordination, and restraint, but it is no substitute for responsible action by nation-states, upon which it depends entirely for its resources. And some nation-states are more powerful than others, dominating regions of the globe either formally through direct territorial control, treaty, or alliance or informally through economic clout or cultural power. Whether formal or informal, this international dominance is imperial. From 1815 to 1914 the dominant global power was Britain and its empire. Arguably from 1919, more so from 1945, and most clearly so from 1989, the dominant global power has been the United States.
To many people of Christian or liberal conviction, “domination” and “dominance” connote oppression and tyranny. Certainly, dominating power is prone to abuse, but an inclination is not a necessity. To dominate need not be to domineer, and in a world of inevitably unequal power, it is clearly better that the just (all things considered) should be more powerful than the unjust. Surely, we want the police to dominate the mafia, liberal democracy to dominate autocratic tyranny, self-defensive Ukrainians to dominate unjustly invading Russians.
It is true, of course, that empires, like nation-states, municipalities, and churches, are run by sinners. Consequently, they can do bad things, sometimes very bad indeed. For example, from approximately 1650 the British Empire presided over 150 years of slave-trading and slavery. And yet, in 1807 the British Empire renounced the trade, and in 1833 it abolished the institution and then spent the remaining century and a half of its existence suppressing slavery all over the world. Indeed, the American political scientists Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape have written that Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic slave trade (on its own) in 1807–67 was “the most expensive example” of costly international moral action “recorded in modern history.”
So, yes, those who possess dominant power are tempted by hubris. Some would argue that the U.S. succumbed to that temptation in the years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the result being its overambitious plan to transform Afghanistan after 2001 and its overoptimistic invasion of Iraq in 2003. Certainly, America’s staunchest allies felt slighted when she started to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2021 without informing them of her plans. Arrogance is a natural temptation for those on top.
Nevertheless, the fact that power can be used badly does not mean that it should be abandoned. Rather, it should be used well. So, even if the United States should do penance and make reparations for the treaties it broke with Native Americans during its original imperial expansion westward in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (among other abuses of power), it does not follow that we should urge America to eschew all imperial power today and simply retreat from the world. The quest for clean hands, if pursued without due regard for our responsibilities, can be a culpable form of moral vanity. This vice is a clear danger, given present realities. Moreover, what the U.S. jettisons, its rival—China—will pick up. International politics abhors a vacuum. And there is no reason to suppose that Beijing would be a better steward of dominant imperial power than Washington. Indeed, if the plights of Hong Kong and the Uighurs are anything to go by, there is good reason to suppose that it would be a lot worse.
Being an imperial power is burdensome. As Jesus teaches, “Every one to whom much is given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). But the burden must be borne. It must be borne in part to ensure that one’s own national people and their way of life are kept secure. For those who do not dominate will themselves be dominated. And it should be borne so that other peoples who lack the privileges of superordinate power will not be dominated by a less just, less benevolent hegemon.
Yes, subordinate allies can be testy and ungrateful. While taking for granted the fruits of the post-1945 pax Americana, European peoples have often been reluctant to contribute a fair share of the cost of their own defense against Soviet, and now nationalist, Russia. But if the ingratitude (rightly) irks Americans, they might allow their irritation to be reined in a little by the thought that, once upon a time, their colonial forebears irked the imperial British a great deal by their reluctance to pay a fair share of their own defense costs. Perhaps God is balancing the accounts.
Ultimately, the justification for wielding dominant, imperial power depends on the value of the goals it seeks to serve. Of course, the first duty of a national government is to defend and promote the security and prosperity of its own people—and to do that for 332 million Americans is hardly a selfish act. But the defense and promotion of the domestic security and well-being of one people depends upon making and keeping the international environment friendly rather than hostile. So, what is defended and promoted at home must be defended and promoted abroad. And if what is defended and promoted includes values and institutions generally important for human welfare—such as the rule of law, an incorrupt civil service, and legal rights—then foreign peoples will benefit as well, as indeed many have since 1945.
The United States is not the only trustee of such values and institutions, but, thanks to the gifts of providence and its own achievements, it happens to be the most powerful global actor at this time. Its primary duty to its own people obliges it to sustain its power. But that duty implies a secondary one to promote the weal of other nations. For if it should surrender its dominant international power, other states, less humane and liberal, will pick it up. The U.S. has a vocation to shoulder the imperial burden, certainly for the sake of Americans, but for the sake of the rest of us as well.
“Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves,” we still sing here in the United Kingdom, “Britons never, never shall be slaves.” We know, however, that the days of Britain’s wave-ruling have passed. So now our freedom, and that of many others, depends upon the will of Americans to sustain their nation’s imperial dominance. Let it not be said that Christians in the United States undermined that will and contributed to a world in which we all fall under Beijing’s yoke.
Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford.