Reflections on the Empire

It has been two full days of Egyptology! Pyramids, the Sphinx, Tahrir Square, street markets, Museum of Cairo, a carpet factory, and a scenic drive out of the city to the Coptic Christian retreat of Anaphora. We’ve seen artifacts from before 4500 BC, trekked inside (and then sang in!) one of the pyramids of Giza, battled jet lag, and tried to absorb as much information as possible.

I spent the day thinking about empires. The world has always been divided into two groups – citizens of the Empire and those left on the outside. The Empire changes over the years – Egypt, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, the British, and now America. I find myself a citizen of the Empire trying desperately to understand what life is like on the outside. American citizens regularly fail to understand and appreciate the power and privilege and opportunity they have simply by belonging to the Empire.

I wonder if today’s Egyptian citizens dwell on the past a lot. I wonder if they long for the days when the world belonged to Egypt. It saddens me that everyone is so poor in a country with the richest history of them all. I couldn’t miss the irony of a street salesman stuck in a dead-end job pushing their wares onto tourists, the wares themselves depicting their very ancestors ruling the world in great glory. Egyptians today find themselves outside the Empire looking in, while Americans today usually miss the bigger picture of the human condition – the privilege of the Empire allows this impossibility. I wonder of the Egyptian citizens of the Old Kingdom at the height of its power were similarly absorbed in their own lives, while roaming bands in outlying provinces yearned only to be Egyptian and to belong to the Empire.

I look forward to developing this theme on the trip. In Christianity, God intentionally chose the world over the Empire. Jesus went to the conflicted and dangerous place, not the place of power and stability. Jesus chose the outside, not the center. If Jesus returned to Earth today, there’s no doubt he’d go to Syria or Congo or Honduras or a hundred other places before America – we are the Empire.

Christianity was never intended for the Empire. Constantine adopted it after a war and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire – the greatest one of them all at that point. The religion was changed beyond recognition and groups wouldn’t be able to attempt to reclaim the original message of Christianity for over a thousand years. This project is clearly ongoing. As citizens of the Empire, we are particularly ill-equipped to try and access Christianity in its original form. Our idols are security and materialism, our sins are fear, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. I wonder if the citizens of Egypt and Rome were equally prone to the same missteps in the face of the message of a God who proclaimed peace and goodwill toward all men – not just within the Empire.

Empire is a thread that runs start to finish on our trip. Like the Bible, we start in Egypt and end in Rome, with a lot of the real world in between. I hope we find human moments of peace and goodwill in the middle, hindered though we are by our citizenship in the Empire.

-Eli Wenger