Woe to Imperialism

Yesterday my Bible class at Woodmont Hills encountered the prophet Habakkuk’s condemnation of imperialism in chapter 2:6-20. In the wake of the United States’ entrance into another war (making it three current ones), I was struck with how relevant the prophet is. [My handouts for this class on Habakkuk are available here.]

The section is headed by a rhetorical question:  “Will not all of them [the nations] taunt him [Babylon] with ridicule and scorn?” And what will they say? This is where the prophet inserts his “woes” against imperialism in 2:6b-20.

There are five woes.

  • Woe to those who gain wealth by theft, extortion and plunder, that is, woe to any nation that gains wealth through injustice. The nation that lives by plunder will die by plunder; as they do unto others, so it will be done to them (2:6b-8)
  • Woe to those who erect monumental structures with such pride that they think they can escape ruin themselves even while they cause the ruin of others. The very buildings they erect will cry out against them (2:9-11).
  • Woe to those who build their empire by violence and injustice. They exhaust themselves in nation-building but it is all in vain (2:12-13); though nations exalt themselves in pride, they “imagine a vain thing” (Psalm 2:1).
  • Woe to those who humiliate, abuse and shame their neighbors as well as violently attack human beings as well as the ecosystems of creation (when the trees of Lebanon are cut down the animals lose their habitat; 2:15-17).
  • Woe to those who substitute another god for the true God, whether it be an idol made of gold and silver or gold and silver itself (2:18-19).

But there are two also doxological affirmations.

  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Yahweh as the waters cover the sea” (2:14)–empires will not reign forever, but one day the natons will know Yahweh when violence and injustice will cease and the shalom of Yahweh will cover the earth.
  • “The Yahweh is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (2:20)–even Babylon must be silent before the God of all the earth, and when in the presence of Yahweh’s holiness, we all must cover our mouths, prostrate our bodies, and humble ourselves before Yahweh.

Woe to Empires but glory to Yahweh. Yahweh wins, the nations don’t. But praise be to God, when Yahweh wins, the nations will come to know the glory of Yahweh.

12 Responses to “Woe to Imperialism”

  1.   Adam Gonnerman Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ll have to look at the verses soon.

  2.   Michael Donnell Says:

    Thanks Dr. Hicks. It is always remarkable how relevant the words of the prophets truly are.

  3.   John Says:

    Since we are now engaged in three wars, it is comforting to know that we have an unlimited treasury.

  4.   Clark Coleman Says:

    I am opposed to our intervention in Libya’s civil war. However,we are not going to add Libya to an American empire. The word imperialism seems to be used whenever one of our military interventions is opposed. Perhaps we could use words more precisely. How is an intervention based on humanitarian concerns for the rebels, and the civilians who live close enough to the rebels to be hit by bombs, properly called imperialism?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I offered my thoughts to prod reflection on empires and imperialism. I did not identify the relevant empire(s).

      Imperialism comes in many forms, not just in adding territories. In the light of Habakkuk, are any actions of the US, Libya, and other nation-states imperialistic and fall under the condemnation of Habakkuk’s “woes”?

      Some might argue that any use of violence is imperialistic. Some might argue that Libya’s oppression is imperialistic. Some might argue the promotion and formenting of democracy in other nations is imperialistic. How one defines the term is not necessarily my concern in this post, but rather whether the actions of nations (notice the plural) fall under the condemnation of Habakkuk’s woes.

      Habakkuk gives us pause and cause to reflect; a moment of introspection and self-assessment.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        “I offered my thoughts to prod reflection on empires and imperialism. I did not identify the relevant empire(s).”

        From the original entry:

        “In the wake of the United States’ entrance into another war (making it three current ones), I was struck with how relevant the prophet is.”

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        I don’t think I identified an empire but contextualized my proding. Multiple empires are involved at multiple levels, in my opinion. I made no specific statement about how or whether Habakkuk’s woes apply to the United States. I wanted readers to think about how they might see it.

  5.   Trent Tanaro Says:

    Great post Sir, I shared it on my fb wall. Well said and good use of Habakkuk.
    Trent Tanaro
    Earth, TX

  6.   jim burkhalter Says:

    My Brother,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this concept (Imperialism) as well as the passage on Habakkuk.
    Perhaps we (Christian Americans)are far too quick to affirm that God blesses all that we do in the international arena. Speaking only for myself, I am no longer willing to accept that premise. I do not say this lightly, I spent 20 years in the Military (USN)and over twice that attempting to be a proclaimer of God’s word.

  7.   rich constant Says:

    the evil empire’s seem to be the kingdoms of the world world at any given time,the “kingdom of God,is where two or three come together and discuss a strategy to overcome the evil of “this world of ignorance of Gods mystery reveled” we are it is said kings and priest’s of the “true God most high who works for us mightily through the Spirit” of our Brother who sits on the throne of our father far above all powers.
    the question to me is John Mark
    is it taking so long to destroy the evil of the “Spirit Anti Christ”
    we should attack at it’s hart and work out from there.
    if say 35 (just a #) of you “professors” of the faith having a through understanding LIKE APOLLOS and did what he did and then working from that hart of evil did the same tactic with the musslums just might make some changes in this evil working from the center out.
    just a thought…
    could write and write
    god never changes and he is our help.

    this is the way i see it bro…

    6:12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. 6:13 For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. 6:14 Stand firm therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness, 6:15 by fitting your feet with the preparation that comes from the good news of peace, 6:16 and in all of this, by taking up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 6:17 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword36 of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 6:18 With every prayer and petition, pray37 at all times in the Spirit, and to this end38 be alert, with all perseverance and requests for all the saints. 6:19 Pray for me also, that I may be given the message when I begin to speak – that I may confidently make known41 the mystery of the gospel, 6:20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may be able to speak boldly as I ought to speak.

  8.   rich constant Says:

    funny me
    i talk about asymmetrical warfare but sometimes i don’t get it ether.
    talk about a “world changer” this electronic empirical structure of instantaneous information available to the “35” (just a #)and the “participation of professing professors”

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