imperialism, Vietnam & the story of God’s people
** These are my personal reflections after reading Vietnam: History, Documents and Opinions on a Major World Crisis by Marvin Gettleman **
History repeats itself. Time and time again, a vulnerable people group finds itself trapped in a perpetual loop of domination systems thats primary objective is to advance their ideologies, political influence and economic interests. Sometimes, the agenda of the domination system is disguised as pure, peaceful and “for everyone’s best interest.” Other times, the agenda is overt and obvious. The earliest human civilizations fell victim to the pursuit of growing their empires and destroying (or enslaving) anyone that stood in their way. And let’s be honest - have things changed that much in our modern age? Consider the many people groups around the globe that are currently being marginalized and oppressed by a more powerful counterpart. This has become the DNA of our civilizations for centuries and it desperately needs reform and reconsideration. "
the deception of Pax Romana
Imperialism is defined as "a policy of extending a country's power and influence through diplomacy or military force."
You don’t have to be a scholar to understand that imperialism has been plaguing people groups and nations for centuries. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg calls these imperial domination systems, which are characterized by political oppression, economic exploitation and religious justification. The aggressor finds a target nation, conquers them with their superior military force, claims them as their own and then designs the system in a way that keeps the native people suppressed. The native people are given no political voice. The native people are oppressed economically through unfair tax regulations and exportation of raw material goods to the mother-nation. All of these actions are then promptly religiously justified — “We are doing this because it’s God’s plan,” they say.
The imperial agenda is often presented as a peacemaking endeavor, one that will bring stability and progress to the target nation. The Roman Empire called this Pax Romana, which meant Roman Peace. But is it peace if it’s not peace for everyone? Is it peace if you take a land that has belonged to someone for centuries without their permission? Is it peace if you subject them to slavery and exploit their resources for your own economic gain? Is it peace if the divide between the ruling class and the peasant class extends as a result of your nation’s occupation? Is it peace if you send missionaries to convert them and change them to be made in the mold of your own values? Is it peace if you implement a tax system that keeps the peasant class impoverished and powerless? Is it peace if the native people aren’t free to determine their own modes of government, education and religion? What appears to be peace to one, may be terror to another.
The infiltration of Pax Romana in Israel was vehemently opposed by many, including Jesus Christ and his followers. The Roman occupation of Israel brought with it political, economic and social systems which were designed to force the least of these to the outskirts of society. The Roman expansion is about Rome’s unquenchable desire for more power, more control, more wealth and more political influence. Promoting their agenda meant delegitimizing all opposing agendas, including the early Christian movement. How was the Christian agenda different than the Roman agenda? The Jesus movement was characterized by political, economic and social systems which elevated the least of these and was focused on promoting general human flourishing, not suffering. Jesus was focused on ideas of unity, equality for people of all social strata, restoration and healing of humanity, forgiveness of enemies and radical love for outsiders. Jesus was focused on exposing the political and religious corruption, not through violence, but through a more subversive strategy.
“Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.”
-excerpt from Mark 12
In this story, the representatives of the domination system approach Jesus and try to trap him. This is a tricky question for Jesus to answer in public. If he says that a person should pay their taxes to Rome, his movement may be delegitimized as it would appear that he was submitted to the authority of the domination system. If he says that a person should not pay their taxes to Rome, he risks being arrested by the Romans for opposing the state which would slow the pace of his movement. His answer is perfect and artful. It’s subversive and just a little sarcastic. Jesus says to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Jesus teaches that the earth and all of the things in it are under God’s dominion. This idea is communicated in a variety of ways and places throughout the gospels. If all things belong to God, then nothing belongs to Caesar. Jesus is essentially stating, tongue-in-cheek, that we should give Caesar nothing because nothing belongs to him. Brilliant.
The Jesus movement was so subversive and such a deep threat to Roman occupation that the Romans had him publicly crucified. They sent a message to Israel — Oppose us and you will be destroyed. But in the resurrection story, God sends another message — Violence and destruction will never have the final word over peace and love. Light shines in darkness. God stands with those who cry out to him in their suffering. God stands with those who stand up against the belligerence of domination systems.
the people of Vietnam: a nation under the boot of foreign oppressors
208 BC: Vietnam is founded.
111 BC: Vietnam is annexed by the Chinese empire.
1427 AD: Vietnam is given a taste of independence, but remains a tributary state of China.
1887 AD: Vietnam (then Annam, Tonkin and Cochin China) is folded into Indochina, which is occupied and colonized by the French empire.
1940 AD: Japan invades Indochina.
1945 AD: At the Potsdam Conference, The Big Three (Great Britain, USSR and USA) grant the north Vietnam territory to China and the south Vietnam territory to France.
1954 AD: At the Geneva Conference, Vietnam is temporarily divided into North Vietnam (Vietminh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and South Vietnam (French Union’s State of Vietnam).
1956 AD: Tensions rise between North and South Vietnam. The agreements of the Geneva Conference are unable to be enforced by the International Commission of Supervision and Control. War ensues and the USA involvement begins thereafter.
One super-power after another.
One foreign influence after another.
One domination system after another.
The Vietnamese people were fighting for their independence and liberation from foreign occupation, oppression and exploitation.
Does this story remind you of any other?
the God of Israel: a liberator of nations under the boot of foreign oppressors
The Hebrew Bible tells us the story of the nation of Israel. At the end of Genesis, the tribes of Israel were established, but they weren’t yet an established nation. The story of Exodus tells the modern reader about the enslavement of the Israelites and their general exploitation as slaves in the Egyptian empire. They longed for their independence and for their God to rescue them. God heard their cries and raised up a leader, named Moses, who fought for the liberation of his people and lead them out of slavery and into the wilderness. It was in the wilderness that God provided the people with the laws that would distinguish them from other nations. Sure, these laws are primitive and some of them outdated, but there were some cunning edge ideas in here (sharing land, forgiving debts, freeing slaves after a certain amount of years, etc). The Israelites finally get the independence they were wanting, establish their own nation and become a brand of domination system that they had so vehemently opposed centuries earlier. Eventually, the nation of Israel splits into two separate nations and both of those nations are eventually taken by the Assryian empire and the Babylonian empire. They spend years in captivity and enslavement and find themselves longing again for liberation, freedom and independence from foreign influence and control. God again hears the cry of the oppressed and leads them out of exile and back to their land. They settle here again and try to restructure their society around the laws of God, but are once again occupied by the Roman empire, which brings us to the time of Jesus.
The people of Israel, time and time again, are invaded and occupied by a foreign domination system. These domination systems bring structures of political, economic and social oppression for the Israelites. In their suffering, they cry out to God who hears the call of the oppressed and hears their blood crying out from the ground and God continually shows forgiveness and brings liberation from the chains of the domination system. God always uses human beings to carry out these liberation movements in the Bible — Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon and finally, Jesus Christ. God clearly stands with those who are oppressed by foreign invaders. God stands with those who are under the boot of superpower nations. God clearly desires to see people freed from political oppression, economic exploitation and social suffocation.
a fiery vessel: instruments of liberation from domination systems
The story of Vietnam isn’t altogether different than the story of Israel — foreign occupation, temporary justice and freedom, new foreign invader and occupation, repeat. China was the first superpower to occupy Vietnam and enslave it’s people and steal its resources and export them for their own financial gain. The Vietnamese, a strong and resilient people, were able to take back their capital in 1427 from the Chinese, but weren’t granted true independence but remained a tributary state of China. In the early 1800s, the French empire began to send missionaries to Vietnam to try and subvert the Vietnamese heritage, tradition and culture. The Vietnamese resented and resisted the French occupation and the French sent an army to retaliate which lead to the absolute French occupation of Vietnam in 1867. The people of Vietnam were once again under the boot of another foreign domination system. The Vietnamese had many conflicts with the French during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Vietnamese worked to achieve moderate reforms during the 1920s through cooperation with the French domination system but their voices were not heard. In the 1930s, Ho Chi Minh established the Communist party of Vietnam in response to the oppression and exploitation of the native people. Eventually, the French grew weary and the Japanese capitalized, invaded and promptly occupied the Vietnam territory. From one foreign domination system to another. The defeat of Japan in WWII created an opportunity for Vietnam and in 1945, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh claimed the independence of Vietnam. The French, who still had a small foothold in the nation, were displeased and attempted to retake the territory for themselves which marked the beginning of the First Indochina War, which ensued from 1946 through 1954. The superpowers of the time (Britain, USA and France) met at the Geneva Conference to determine the terms for post-war Vietnam and the nation of Vietnam was separated into two regions — North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The North became the hub for the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh’s team of liberty fighters and the South became the the puppet nation, as Vietnamese leaders were put into the government but only those who sympathized with the agenda of the French domination system. More conflict ensued, more countries got themselves involved (USA) and that lead to the Second Indochina War, also know as the Vietnam War.
We know nothing good came from these wars and conflicts. We can look back in hindsight and agree that many things were done by both sides that were terrible and violent and hateful. But can you see some of the similarities between the story of Israel and the story of Vietnam (and many other nations that have fought valiantly for their independence as a nation)?
Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietminh, fought for the liberation of his people from the occupation of the French domination system.
Moses, the leader of the Israelites, fought for the liberation of his people from the occupation of the Egyptian domination system.
Jesus Christ, the leader of the Jews, fought for the liberation of his people from the occupation of the Roman domination system.
Ho Chi Minh was demonized by the Western empire because of his subversive teachings which undermined the authority and control of the domination system.
Moses was demonized by the Egyptian empire because of his subversive teachings which undermined the authority and control of the domination system.
Jesus Christ was demonized by the Roman empire because of his subversive teachings which undermined the authority and control of the domination system.
These domination systems are designed structurally to politically oppress and economically exploit the native people in the land they conquer and occupy. They seek to steal, plunder and destroy. These are ideas that the God of Israel radically opposes. These are ideas that Jesus Christ radically opposes. The Vietnamese, the Israelites and the early Christians were not perfect in their way of opposing the domination systems of their time. But God stands with them and God hears their cries.
For those of us that live in the USA and call ourselves Christian people, we must listen to this message carefully. The imperialistic nature of the American diplomatic agenda cannot be supported by anyone who adheres to the teachings of Jesus Christ and follows the God of Israel. Jesus Christ was executed by the Roman empire because his teachings were a threat to the agenda of their imperial domination system. When our nation is going into other nations and structuring their society in a way that undermines their heritage, tradition and culture, then we must withdraw our support. If we stand with Jesus, we stand for systemic justice - a society that’s structured around equality, forgiveness, unity and renewal. We must refuse to be deceived by the disguise that suggests that the USA’s agenda is one of “peacemaking.” A superpower doesn’t become a superpower by bringing true and authentic liberation to other nations. A superpower grows by occupying more territory, transforming cultures and promoting their system of politics and economics.