Against Empire

urban meyer
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer

“The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’  He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.  When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, NIV)

King Solomon was wildly successful.  He expanded the kingdom of Israel in every way: more land; more gold; more buildings; more wealth; more wisdom; big temple; big family; more and big of everything.  We do not have an account that anyone called out Solomon on his big expansive government and lifestyle.

Methinks the reason for letting King Solomon go unchecked was that he was surrounded by people who enjoyed and participated in his success.  Even though he was often operating well outside of the Deuteronomic law which was right there in black and white, Solomon’s subjects only saw that he established peace, security, and a high standard of living for the nation.  Solomon acquired a massive amount of horses, wives, gold, and everything the law warned against.

Solomon was very humble and wise at the beginning of his reign.  He did everything his father David asked of him, and more.  But his wild success as king gradually brought Solomon to acquire more stuff, more wives, and to fudge on the responsibilities and requirements of the king.  Solomon established an Empire and denied himself nothing when it came to the perks of power.

There is always a dark underbelly to the outward display of power, success, and wealth.  As time goes on, the Empire becomes a god and people begin supporting the system instead of the Deity who makes it all possible to begin with.  Pride replaces humility.  Foolish ignoring of evidence becomes the norm.  Optics arises as supreme.  Solomon basically enslaved a large swath of Israel’s population to get things done in the Empire.  His success was on the backs of a lower class of people.  But, hey, who cares, as-long-as there is no war, the borders are secure, and the nation’s coffers are getting filled beyond anybody’s wildest expectations?

When the Empire becomes supreme and brings in the money, no one questions the leader.  Yes, I understand all of this happened thousands of years ago.  However, even though times change, people don’t.

It doesn’t matter the context of the Empire’s power; if it exists, it operates eerily the same.  Whether it’s Bill Hybels as the leader of a wildly successful megachurch; Urban Meyer as the leader of a crazy successful football program at Ohio State; or, any government leader overseeing immense wealth; the same ignoring of evidence among constituents, congregants, citizens, and fans exists.  In other words, people tend to look the other way when things are going well.  Whereas the leader may have once started out as wise and humble, the eventual wild success changes them.

bill hybels
Willow Creek Church founding Pastor, Bill Hybels

But things are never really going that well.  The dark underbelly hides realities of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and all kinds of other abuses all in the name of maintaining the success, that is, the Empire.

Show me a wildly successful leader of an Empire, no matter what that Empire is, and I’ll show you an entire coterie of sycophants who continually look to cash-in on that success through recognition, power, and money.  In the case of Hybel’s context, Willowcreek Community Church, the elder board (eventually) did the right thing in resigning – once they got clear-headed enough to see that they were complicit.  Ohio State still seems to have their collective heads in the sand – not seeing the situation for what it is.  Meanwhile, abuse is not squarely dealt with because the system of Empire churns along with impunity.  Unquestioning support of a human leader, whether it is in sports, in church, in government, or in a business corporation because the Empire has such incredible success is a recipe for disaster.  People will get hurt and abused; and, the victims will have no one to believe them on the inside.  Too many other folks are benefiting from the Empire.  They don’t want to see the dark underbelly.

Personally, I always come back to Jesus.  He is the ultimate example.  The Lord Jesus was humble, meek, gentle, loving, and always used his emotions and abilities toward the ends of healing others, not hurting them.  Jesus did not build an Empire.  Yes, I understand an argument could be made that the Church is an Empire (and it did exist as one in Medieval Europe).  Yet, Jesus Christ purposely and deliberately eschewed Empire.  He often told people to keep quiet about his good deeds of healing so that the seeds of Empire could not even germinate.

What’s more, Jesus did not surround himself with sycophants.  He chose the most motley crew of people one could imagine.  Christ’s original twelve disciples were such an unknown and diverse bunch of rag-tag Jewish men that nobody could mistake them as Empire building guys.  They were about a movement, not an Empire.  They were concerned for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of their own making.

The people we surround ourselves with, no matter whether we’re high mucky-muck leaders or lower-class invisible persons, or anyone in-between, is vitally important.  We all need loving persons around us who will tell us what we need to hear in a spirit of love and grace.  Speaking the truth in love is not optional equipment for any of us.  None of us do well with success unless we have humble and wise persons close to us who have the gumption and the grace to speak into our lives to help us, not hurt us.  When we don’t have that, things go sideways in a hurry.

If a guy like King Solomon, who was the wisest person who ever lived, can ignore his own nation’s God and Holy Scripture to get whatever he wanted, then how much more do we, who have less wisdom, need the grace of loving people speaking truth to our hearts?

Exposing the dark underbelly of Empire will always be fraught with the risk of people not believing and, worse, not caring.  That’s why the Christian New Testament liberally uses the word “light” to describe what kind of people we are to be.  Just as Jesus is the Light of the World, shining himself into all the dark and shadowy places of our lives and the systems of this world, so his followers are to be his flashlights, shining in such a way that is righteously persistent and gracious.

It isn’t our job to build a great Christian Empire to ensure prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, and manger scenes everywhere at Christmas.  Rather, it is our responsibility and privilege to fully embrace the status of poverty of spirit; grief, lament, and mournfulness over the sin of the world’s Empires; meekness toward others; hunger for right relationships; mercy for all; pure relations with everyone; and, peacemakers who shepherd people to the green pastures of forgiveness and harmony with God and humanity.

Today we all have the opportunity to build something greater than ourselves – a legacy which invites accountability, openness, and vulnerability which blesses the world and doesn’t seek its accolades.  It’s not always how you start; its often what motivates you and how you end that matters most.  Just ask Citizen Kane.

So, may you know the grace of caring relationships; the mercy of hearing hard things; the joy of being above board in everything you say and do; and, the humility to admit when you’ve gone off the rails.

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