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America: today’s Eternal Rome

When the Roman Emperor, following a great military victory, rode triumphantly through the streets of ancient Rome, behind him in the chariot stood a slave. The slave’s functions were two. He held a gold crown above the emperor’s head. And he whispered in his ear, “All glory is fleeting.”
In my lifetime, the gold crown has rested on the head of America. Among the kingdoms of the earth, my country has been the greatest, strongest and richest. The only time since World War II that its supremacy has been in question was during the Cold War era of “mutually assured destruction” when the USSR and America each knew they could blow the other to smithereens.
I would hope the 9/11 attack, among other things, will remind us of our nation’s mortality, that “all glory is fleeting.” An uncritical, nationalistic spirit refuses to acknowledge that America might not remain supreme until the end of time. That’s how “Eternal Rome” thought.
How could anyone, seeing Rome in all its splendor in the first three centuries of the current era, have imagined otherwise? That same hubris characterized the Babylonian empire, the Assyrian empire, the Persian empire, and the more recent Ottoman empire. It seemed to all the world, at the zenith of each empire, that their glory would never end.
The decline and fall of an empire can come either from without or within. Juvenal, the Roman satirist, attributed the downfall of the Roman empire to panem et circenses, or bread and circuses. The Roman empire self-destructed. Pleasuring and entertaining themselves supplanted the creativity and industry and commitment to excellence that once made the Romans great. They got fat and happy. They were easy pickings when the barbarians came down from the north.
My hope is that the tragedy of 9/11 will make us more patriotic. There’s a theological world of difference between patriotism and nationalism. I am a patriot. I dearly love my country and want it to become more fair, more benevolent.
Nationalism, by contrast, makes a god of country. Nationalism is an idolatrous “my country is — by definition — right” worldview. That uncritical, nationalistic spirit gave us Adolf Hitler, who thought his kingdom would last 1,000 years.
Patriotism consists of more than being able to drop a bigger bomb on them than they drop on us. If America is great because America is good, let’s excel in dropping more antibiotics, more formula, more blankets, more protein, more plows, more seeds. If it’s morning in America, as Ronald Reagan said and I want to think, it’s because we care passionately for justice and goodness for all humankind.
If there’s a word from God to us in this time, it may be the one spoken through the prophet Amos to a great nation in danger of losing its way: “What I want to see is a mighty flood of justice — a torrent of doing good.”
Editor’s note: Dr. R. Wayne Willis is the interim pastor at the Corydon Presbyterian Church.