When I was growing up, Monopoly was a favourite family game. It was played, in particular, on occasions when the extended family got together, such as at Christmas. Games would go on late into the night, and my sister and I were allowed to stay up much later than would normally have been the case. I still have fond memories of those times.
It used to be that there was only one version of Monopoly (at least, only one in the UK) – the one with London street names on it. Now, of course, there is a whole host of different versions; even so, to me it still feels odd and not quite right to play any version other than the traditional London one. I guess I’m something of a traditionalist at heart.
Anyway, my son happened to mention yesterday that he and some friends had been playing the “Empire” version of Monopoly, pictured above. I didn’t know of this version, and the image that spring to mind when my son mentioned “empire” was of ancient warring empires like Rome, the empire of Alexander the Great and the Byzantine empire. But I was wrong: the empires on which the game is based are corporate empires like Coca-Cola, Microsoft and McDonald’s. I was immediately struck by just how apt this is.
In ancient times, an empire was an extensive geographical area within which everyone was under the authority of an emperor. Empires were mostly dictatorships, which meant that the emperor passed laws by decree, so you were more or less forced to go along with them whether you liked it or not. Stepping out of line usually entailed consequences of the most severe kind.
These ancient empires like Rome grew to huge proportions. At the most basic level, the model was this: you did as you were told and you paid taxes to the emperor, and the reward for your compliance was that you were allowed to live. Your desires and choices were of no consequence. Beyond this, if you adopted the ways of the empire and actively cooperated with it, there were rewards to be had: mainly status, wealth and influence. The go-getters were those who got on board with or kowtowed to the empire; then there were the countless masses who complied because they felt they had no choice; and finally, there were the few brave souls who actively stood up to the empire in various ways – and most of whom didn’t last long.
To come to my point, we tend to think we don’t live under empires today: we’re far too advanced and civilised for such primitive systems. (Of course, I’m well aware that there are still those who live under dictatorships and quite literally pay for non-compliance with their lives. But I’m mainly addressing those who, like me, live in the “free” western world.) However, to those who claim to be citizens of God’s empire (or God’s kingdom, if you prefer), this Empire Monopoly poses a challenging question: what systems operating in the western world today function in a similar way to an ancient empire like Rome, and how do we respond to them?
I would argue that unrestrained consumer capitalism fits the bill nicely. Think about it. The emperor (that which determines the rules) is wealth, which brings with it various attendant benefits – power, status and comfort to name but three. The ruling authorities that impose the empire’s will – the armies, if you like – are the faceless corporate megaliths that dictate what is cool, what is acceptable, who is “in” and who is “out”. These include both manufacturers of goods and purveyors of information and entertainment.
What can you do if you live under such an empire? Well, your first choice is to comply: accept that you live under this empire and can’t escape from it whether you like it or not. If you accept this role, you’ll be allowed to exist within the empire – but there’s a good chance that its values will gradually seep further and further into your soul until you’re absorbed into the faceless mass of those whose very identity and sense of self-worth is shaped by what the empire dictates.
Alternatively, you might decide to get on board and leverage your citizenship in the empire for maximum personal advantage. All you have to do is embrace the empire’s values (might is right, greed is good, if it feels good do it, etc.) and suck up to its power-brokers and you stand to gain wealth, status and influence. (The only drawback is that you might lose your soul in the process.)
The third choice, of course, is to resist. Those who choose this path, while recognising that they have no choice but to live in the midst of the empire, refuse to embrace its values or acquiesce to its demands. They reject coercion, greed and self-gratification, choosing instead to wholeheartedly and proactively practice humility, generosity and self-sacrifice. But be aware that if you go down this path it will likely be at great cost: you will end up dead to the world. In other words, in the eyes of the empire and everything it cherishes and represents, you will be of no value, an object of scorn. You will be turning your back on every opportunity for fame, wealth, power and influence.
But if the price is high, the prize is surely more than worth it: life and freedom.
Which path will you choose: compliance, embrace or resistance?
[Note: the above is not meant to be either a bulletproof model or a dogmatic treatise. It’s an oversimplification, and I’m fully aware of its limitations. Real life is much more complex: we’re prey to many more influences than simply wealth and power, and we’re faced with a multitude of nuanced decisions every day rather than three stark, black-and-white choices. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the dominant, controlling forces were in the first century world that Jesus lived in – and to which all of the New Testament writings are addressed – and what the equivalent forces are in today’s world. I think the parallels are obvious, and I think they should cause us, as Christians, to ask ourselves some serious questions about whose empire we serve and how we serve it.]