When I hear the word empire, my mind immediately runs to historical Rome or China; however, something I read this week has had my mind and heart considering adding our nation to the mix.
While our nation began as a democratic republic with a shared, though often fought over, vision of the common good, some historians argue that sometime in the past fifty or so years, America made the shift from a republic to an empire.
In her address to a symposium of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Catholic worker and scholar Mary Jo Leddy said the following about a subtle shift that has taken place in our nation.
“Many historians will argue that the transformation of the republic to an empire has happened over the last fifty years. It has not been merely a transformation in size but in orientation as well. The republic was held together by an overarching common vision of a good and just society. It was an incredible political vision, which sought to balance the sometimes conflicting values of freedom and justice with a truly original political system.”
According to Leddy, after the Cold War, America no longer had a common, clear enemy which had been so clearly delineated through Communism. With the Fall of the Iron Curtain and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, our nation has desperately fought to define its new enemy. Leddy astutely claims, “Unless we reclaim some positive vision as a nation, we will be engaged in war upon war. A perpetual state of fear and conflict.”
She couples this fading of a common shared vision with a gradual decline in our nation, one that is not immediately obvious. She likens the slow disintegrating of our national empire to the gradual fall of another empire, Rome, after the attack of the Vandals in AD 410. While the Vandals did not succeed in destroying Rome, their attack altered the empire, which for the first time seemed mortal rather than eternal. Some historians say that 9/11 provided a similar moment for America. With the collapse of two iconic buildings and the unexpected attack which killed so many before the watching world, suddenly, the American empire seemed mortal.
While Rome left an indelible mark on modern history through its law, politics, architecture, and concept of citizenship, it is no longer the center of the known world. America seems to find herself in a similar place, fighting to hold on to her former central place .
Certainly, America still stands and has an incredible amount of influence and power; however, we find ourselves in tenuous times as a nation.
In-fighting and political partisanship have reached dangerous levels of vitriol and toxicity; it seems the only enemy we can identify are those other Americans who think differently, vote differently, or worship differently than we do.
While Leddy wisely pointed out the problem, her solution seemed lacking. According to her, Americans must reclaim a shared vision for the common good. While that sounds easy enough, without a clear standard of good and evil and right and wrong, both parties put themselves on the good side and their counterpart on the evil side.
This is exactly what is happening right now, as I write and as you read. Liberals are propagating their own version of good and evil through CNN while conservatives claim the exact opposite on Fox News. Without a straight edge by which to rule itself and others, our nation will remain in such a plight.
To our credit, this generation inherited a system that moved away from absolute truth hundreds of years ago. We followed the ways of Hume rather than the Rock from which we were hewn; we left the Scriptures as the standard of good and evil and opted for right and wrong which were intuited by feelings and common sense. However, we did not recognize that we had borrowed our ideals of justice and goodness from the foundations laid by biblical truths. Now we find ourselves experiencing the logical end of wrong presuppositions.
When feelings, experience, intuitions, and preferences guide our morality, we end up at loggerheads. After all, what happens when one person or party’s intuitions are at odds with another? We need not answer that question, we are living in it. Division. Strife. Hatred. A nation tearing itself down.
Our nation is at a crossroads. Our generation and our children’s generation are reaping what was sown hundreds of years ago. Now that we see the infected crop it has produced, we have the opportunity to plant something different for the coming generations.
“Whoever troubles his own household will inherit the wind, and the fool will be the servant to the wise of heart.” Proverbs 11:29.
As a nation, we have many great questions to tackle. And many wiser than I are attempting to tackle many of them. However, my concern is that we are not starting asking the questions far enough back.
Will we trust in the wisdom of man and philosophies which start with man at the center, attempting to make sense of the world? Or will we trust in the wisdom of the God who stands outside of time as its caring Creator?