July 26, 2017 / Jin S. Kim

The Evolutionary Survival Instinct of Empire

Every time I step into my backyard the squirrels dart away immediately. They fear me no matter how long I have demonstrated my commitment to nonviolence. I see little distinction in the neurology between humans and squirrels. We ingenious human beings have the intellect of the gods, but our primitive fight-or-flight reflex demonstrates that we have the psychology of rodents.

Empire Animals vs. Humane Beings

The logical conclusion of the evolutionary survival instinct is empire. All creatures are wired to survive at all cost and to pass on their genes. Both the instinct to survive and the compulsion to empire are driven by fear. A humane society assumes live and let live, but empire is built on the logic of kill or be killed. Empires are built on enforced homogeneity in ethnicity, language, culture, or geography combined with the impulse to universalize one’s particularity. Anyone who resists this drive to hegemony becomes the enemy of empire.

Empires are built on the logic of kill or be killed. @JinPCUSA Share on X

Against the various forms of fear that drove the religious establishment and political arrangements of his day, Jesus never gave in to fear. As the embodiment of humanity, Jesus never acted out of the instinct to survive. When confronted with enemies, he turned the other cheek. When exploited, he offered all that he had. When betrayed by his closest disciples even unto death, he forgave and made them business partners. Contra all the forces of fear in his time, Jesus was the model of humane love.

In contemporary psychological terms, I would argue that he was a perfectly self-differentiated, non-anxious presence which upset all kinds of systems around him. Jesus taught people true humanity. As the incarnation of God, he modeled a way to be humane rather than act like rabid animals, a shepherd of the sheep in a dog-eat-dog world.

America the New Rome?

The proven path for an oppressive regime to legitimate its power is to overwhelm history with ideology. The myth of American exceptionalism rooted in the delusion of our nation’s immaculate conception is one such example. Christian denominational triumphalism is another. The way to cast this demonic ideology out is by following the flesh and blood Jesus of the Bible, not the mascot Jesus of imperial religion. To dispel national mythology is to kneel before the baby Jesus, not to venerate the eagle, the imperial symbol of both ancient Rome and the United States of America.

The vast majority of the voting public in the U.S. claim to be Christian, yet enable endless militarism, economic injustice, and political corruption. Politicians anesthetize the public with religious rhetoric about God and country, mom and apple pie. Civil religion has been reduced to empty prayers at sporting events, and the incessant demand that God bless America, dammit! We understand America’s special calling to be living into our myth of national redemption. We have been taught that God chose European immigrants to forge a new ethnos called ‘white people’ who together would lead the world into the heights of civilization.

White American logic has gone something like this: If the native peoples, the enslaved Africans, and the rest of the world don’t see America as the gift to humanity that we are, then we’re going to take our ‘guns, germs, and steel’ and simply impose our ‘supremacy’ as a favor to the world. It’s certainly a tragicomic form of noblesse oblige, but is it democracy? Is Pax Americana an improvement on Pax Romana? This makes us fundamentally Machiavellian in our approach, where the ends justify the means. Jesus, on the other hand, said that he is the way, which leads to the truth, which leads to true life. When Peter picks up the sword, Jesus rebukes him.

Is Pax Americana an improvement on Pax Romana? @JinPCUSA Share on X

White Supremacy – An Empire Strategy

The primary strategy of American empire is white supremacy. It is an ideology that enslaves without discrimination, including middle-colored people like me who are all too eager to eat the crumbs of white privilege. White supremacy oppresses black people the most, but it oppresses white people first. White supremacy is passed on in the womb and permeates the air. It can infect any who come in contact with it, including Latino governors and black Supreme Court justices. The ways in which white supremacy oppresses people of color are obvious and legion, and documented well enough that I will not do so here.

White supremacy oppresses black people the most, but it oppresses white people first. @JinPCUSA Share on X

I’d like to point out the less obvious, that white supremacy oppresses white people too. In my pastoral ministry I see many white people suffer from a pervasive feeling of what they call ‘inadequacy.’ When I ask what they feel inadequate about, it’s basically about how they should possess money, power, status, and control in their lives. Many white people truly feel entitled to this personal level of supremacy as a birthright. They do not recognize that the very assumption that every aspect of life should work to their advantage is itself a primary component of white supremacy.

Casting Out American Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism shapes not only our nation’s overarching psychology, it also has a powerful role in shaping the imagination of its subjects, seducing its population with the promise that every single person can be ‘special’. This pathology sets countless white (and whitewashed) people up for an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and failure. I try my best to cast out this particular demon from my congregants with this spiel:

There are seven billion people on this earth just like you. Hardly anyone cared when you were born and hardly anyone will care when you die. No matter what you do on this earth, good or bad, most people aren’t going to care because they are mostly concerned for themselves. Once you get over your heroism project and recognize that life is about living and loving and being loved, then life becomes simple and manageable. No need to strive, no need to achieve, no need to prove anything to anyone, no supremacy necessary. Loving God and loving neighbor – this is the way out of empire, this is the way into the kingdom of God.

It’s not that those who want to be special cannot love; it’s that the need to be special is in direct competition with serving the interests of others. Trusting God to provide for all of our needs means that we become liberated from self-concern. We finally have the space to pay attention to others, to pour ourselves out as an offering to God.

The need to be special is in direct competition with serving others. Share on X

Some who ‘get’ this experience a tremendous sense of liberation. Others are crushed with guilt and shame over their complicity in American empire. Sadly, white Americans are in a double bind. They not only feel shame about the legacy of white supremacy, but also personal guilt. This is an interesting phenomenon since in most countries people do have a sense of collective shame about unflattering aspects of their history, but typically not a sense of personal guilt as they are not controlled by radical individualism.

White Americans are victims of larger social forces, yet the culture tells them that the individual is wholly responsible for all that is wrong with society. A collective consciousness must be divorced from extreme notions of individualism if the person is to take appropriate collective responsibility—without the ensuing emotional paralysis.

Following Jesus – A Kingdom Strategy

I believe that following Jesus—this penniless, homeless, disreputable, Palestinian Jew—actually becomes the way to true human dignity. Maybe one day we’ll see that when we Christians go along with the logic of empire, or prop up any form of exceptionalism, we debase and humiliate ourselves. Instead, the radical rejection of imperial ‘reality’ paves the way for radical Christian living and a dignified life together.

For me, reading the Bible plainly and following Jesus radically means that we expect every stone in our present temples, both secular and sacred, to be dismantled. It is to expect the structures of empire to be thrown down because Jesus will come again to establish the reign of God, which has no end.