The Ethics of Empire

At 8&H, I’ve been teaching a class with my friend Arnold Robledo about immigrants and refugees in Scripture. Yesterday we made it to the Exodus narrative, and I was able to review some of the underlying ethical impulses that guided Egypt’s response to the Hebrews as an immigrant population. If we pay attention, these impulses guide much of our decision making today.

The ethics of the empire is rooted in the reality of death. In Genesis 3, sin opened the door to death, and death created a frightening existence that terrorizes us from every angle. This is evident from the very earliest moments of our experience with death. God tells Eve childbearing will now have an attendant anxiety with it. Adam will now anxiously work for his next meal in a world re-defined by scarcity in the Fall. Because of death, fear and anxiety are ever-present realities in our world. It doesn’t take an especially religious person to realize this. Each of us will regularly come face to face with the scariness of our situation.

When this happens, a natural inclination is to ask, “Why?” Why is the world a scary place? Why do so many bad things happen? Why, try as we might, are we unable to bolster the economy, make lasting peace, or conquer our many demons large and small? Equally reflexive is the tendency to cast blame for this brokenness on someone else. In Scripture, this is the fundamental role of the satan – or the accuser. To highlight how this tendency to blame and accuse works functionally, notice the verb we translate accuse in Greek is katagoreo, from which we derive our word categorize.

In our dangerous world created by death, the fundamental move in the face of our anxiousness is to divide everyone into camps of us and them, which almost always plays out as us versus them. They are the ones to blame. They are the threat to our way of life. They are the problem with the world.

We can see each of these elements clearly in the Exodus narrative. The new Pharaoh was anxious and the Hebrews were to blame. He was a afraid that if an enemy attacked Egypt, the Hebrews would side with those enemies and defeat him. A little later, when Pharaoh’s plans to curtail the problem failed, the text tells us the Egyptians began to look on the Hebrews with disgust and dread.

Having identified the problem, the ethics of empire then calls us to find ways to overpower or dominate the source of our anxiety. At the end of the day, I propose this is what functionally makes the empire the empire. It is the ethic of out-vote, out-shout, out-spend, out-legislate, and out-bomb, in which the solution to our fears is to have more power than those that scare us.

Pharaoh is concerned about the Hebrew problem so he institutes a domestic policy of forced labor for the Hebrews – a title which, by the way, marks the Israelites out as immigrants in Egyptian society. When various iterations of that plan fail, he adds the additional measure of calling on all loyal,patriotic Egyptians to murder all Hebrew boys. All of this is done, in the face of Egyptian anxiety, in the name of national security.

So, in short, these are the ethics of empire: The way one responds to the frightfulness of our anxious world is to identify and dominate those who cause our anxiety. This is the ethical underpinning beneath Pharaoh’s actions in the Exodus narrative. It is also the thought process at work in the gospels, as the religious elite conspire and act against Jesus. And, the ethics of empire are still very much alive today.

What does this have to do with the way we treat immigrants and refugees today? I suspect you can put many of those puzzle pieces together yourself. Let me say this: Whenever we approach a people group with fear, accusation, and domination, we are living out of the empire and not the kingdom of God.



The Ethics of Empire