Jesus & the Zealots: America was never great and we shouldn’t make it so

What is fascinating about the hold of the American empire’s power is its ability to pursuade its subjects that – however imperfect or unliked it is – it is exceptional, the world’s best, and is only reformable through its own system.

Even liberals and progressives are convinced. In the same breath, their complaints about the system are coupled with invocations to participate in reforming it on its own terms.

Nevermind, apparently, that of all nation-state governments, the U.S. has scored dead last in some categories, such as incarceration, military expenditure, and mental health problems in the civilian population.

In Jesus’ day, there was a faction of radical Jews that sought to liberate themselves from the brutal Roman occupation of their land.

In many ways, Jesus held a similar objective, but did not share the means of the Zealots. The Zealots’ waged violence insurrection. They sought to defeat the sword with the sword, but in doing so were actually entrenching the systems of violence under which they understandably grieved.

Donald Trump has pledged to “make America great again.” U.S. citizens opposing Trump have insisted that America was already great.

Such Americans are like the Zealots, opposing injustice by means that entrench it – in their case the narrative of American Exceptionalism.

There is nothing particularly amazing or outstanding about the U.S. empire. It should not be admired for advancing anything particularly unique in the world. Countless nation-states, themselves also imperfect and perhaps not worth preserving, have done more in the way of advancing human rights, democracy (read: rule of a majority over minorities), basic freedoms, the environment, infrastructure, social unity amidst diversity, etc.

There are some American progressives who will say, “Yes, but, we had some extremely notable figures and movements in U.S. history…Dr. King, Dorothy Day, the women’s suffrage movement, the abolitionists, etc.” This, however, is like crediting the empire’s conditions for being so deplorable that people had to rise up, rather than seeing these individuals and movements as exceptional themselves. Surely few of these individuals and groups would consider themselves products of the empire, and even so, would certainly not elevate themselves to a superior position atop their international comrades.

Many of them would say the empire’s soul is not worth preserving.

The Zealots and American liberals and progressives have noble, well-intentioned causes. But Jesus teaches us that to achieve desired ends, we must divest from the empire’s means. In this case:

1) Not understanding the system’s means (reform, voting, arguing on Facebook until anger subsides, etc) as being the primary vehicle for transformation.

2) Understanding protest – particularly monolithic/persuasive advocacy – as a means which may at times actually entrench the system. Marching and symbolic protests are not automatically productive for a struggle. More creative methods are needed, methods which pose a direct threat to the systems we want to dismantle.

3) The building of alternatives to the prevailing system. The Zealots failed to offer this. Not only did it make their demonstration ineffective, but it contributed to their lack of popular support.

Not everyone residing within U.S. borders is particularly interested in making America great. That is not really the goal. Some wish for the empire’s collapse, because for them America is a genocidal occupation, a legacy of violence, a system of white heterosexual male domination, a trigger-happy policeman, a land grabbing corporation. What the oppressed everywhere want is liberation, freedom, justice, access to food, housing, medicine.

America was never particularly or exceptionally great. Americans (different term than America) – indigenous mothers, young black men, union workers, Muslim immigrants, queer couples – they are all deserving of safe, dignified human lives. But this won’t be achieved by making the empire great, certainly not by maintaining a current or past status of “greatness.”


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