Moral outrage at Assyrian and Babylonian imperialism soaks the pages of biblical prophecy. The books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, are replete with examples of anti-Assyrian and anti-Babylonian theopolitical rhetoric (e.g., Isa 10:5-15; 13:1-14:27; 47:1-15; Jer 50-51). The book of Habakkuk critiques Babylonian imperialism repeatedly. Examples:
[the Chaldean juggernaut] holds kings in derision,
princes for him are a joke.
He laughs at every fortress,
he piled up earth and captured them.
Then the wind changed, and he moved on,
he incurs guilt, he whose might is his God. (1:10-11)
the one who amasses what is not his!
How long can he make heavier
the debt accruing to him?
Shall not your creditors
May those who make you tremble awake
and you be despoiled by them!
all remaining peoples will plunder you
on account of the spilled blood of man
and violence to the land,
to towns and all who live in them. (2:6b-8)
On the other hand, Persian imperialism in Isa 40-48 is described in glowing terms. The Persian conquest of Babylonia and the Levant under the leadership of Cyrus was viewed positively insofar as it brought an end to Babylonian imperialism, treated everyone with a measure of respect, and fixed as a goal the extension of its writ to the Aegean isles and coastlands. This passage most likely has Cyrus in mind (Isa 42:1-4):
my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one, in whom I take pleasure.
I put my spirit upon him;
he brings order to the nations.
No one cries out;
no one objects;
No one makes heard
his voice in the streets.
The bruised reed
he does not break;
the dim wick
he does not snuff out;
in truth he brings order to the nations.
No one grows dim,
no one is discouraged,
while he establishes order on earth,
and the isles await his nomos.
The translation I offer is not certain in all details, but the gist is the same as that found in NRSV, NJPSV, NJB, etc. Compare Isa 44:28-45:3:
who say of Cyrus, “My shepherd!
He shall fulfill my wishes!”
- saying of Jerusalem: “She shall be rebuilt,
the Temple refounded!”
Cyrus, his Anointed One
the Lord said:
“He whose right hand I have grasped
to tread down nations before him,
I who ungird the loins of kings,
opening doors before him,
letting no gate stay shut:
will march before you,
the ring-walls level,
the bronze-doors shatter,
the iron bars cut down.
I will give you
treasures concealed in darkness,
Thus you will know
it was I, the Lord,
who calls you by name,
the God of Israel.’”
The commitment of Cyrus to the restoration of traditional cults was stressed in the empire’s own rhetoric. See Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 bc (2 vols.; Routledge History of the Ancient World; London: Routledge, 1995) 2:601-602, 656-661, and her groundbreaking essays referenced there.
The above remarks no more than touch on a large subject. The book of Daniel’s condemnation of Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic imperialism – the latter pushed the claims of “universal truth” to the point of ruthless intolerance for Jewish particularism - deserves separate treatment. The approval given to the notion of Judahite hegemony over her neighbors is a related topic (2 Sam 7:8-16; 8:1-14; Isa 8:23ab-9:6; 11:1-10, 13-14; 14:28-32; 16:1-5; Amos 9:11-12; and Pss 2, 18, 60; 72, 87, 108, and 110).
Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire is an essay by British historian Niall Ferguson. He makes the argument that a political and commercial empire is not good or bad per se. It is always both, and can be either; an empire can cause more evil than good, or the reverse.
Ferguson argues that in both military and economic terms America is nothing less than the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government. In theory, a good project, according to Ferguson. To be sure, those with empires of their own, with dreams of having one, or nostalgia for an empire that no longer exists, will see things rather differently.
Based on emphases in biblical tradition, including those alluded to above, and a qualified commitment to American scripture, including Lincoln’s 1855 Letter to Joshua Speed and Emma Lazarus’s 1883 The New Colossus, my sense of what qualifies as a “good” imperial project is not the same as Ferguson’s. Furthermore, it is not clear why an American or a non-American needs to support a “good” imperial project of any kind. But at least Ferguson avoids the simplistic anti-imperialism which fills the mouths of many in academia.
It pays to have a grasp of the criteria by which imperialisms were evaluated in the biblical tradition, and to relate that tradition to America's exceptionalism, real or imagined. On that basis it becomes possible to make better sense out of the contemporary realities of international politics. The alternatives, Realpolitik, neo-conservatism, and isolationism, not to mention the anti-imperialistic approach of Noam Chomsky championed, it appears, by James Crossley in his coffee-table special, have, it is not too much to say, rather less going for them.
A non-politically correct, non-stupid take on international affairs and geopolitics is hard to come by, but it does exist. I recommend the following authors, each of whom has something different to teach: Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of American Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004); John Lewis Gaddes, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage, 2000); Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Routledge, 2002).
Read these four authors, and you will have the makings of a credible alternative to the politics of the Copenhagen / Sheffield school of “postcolonial Biblical Studies” promoted by Jim West (in his own words, “the Don King of the Sheffield school”). To be sure, I have the utmost respect for Sheffieldians like Crossley. They lay their politics out on the table. They don’t pretend. Well, neither do I. We just happen to disagree on a few details of political and historical interpretation, ancient and modern.