Who was Simon of Cyrene and Why is this Relevant?
Simon of Cyrene was the man in the biblical accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion who was made by the Romans to carry Jesus’s cross. He was said to come from Cyrene, which is in North Africa (Matthew 27:32). In fact, the story of Simon is included in all of the Synoptic Gospels. There is nothing stated in the Gospel accounts about Simon wanting to help, simply that he was made to do so.
I bring up this character from the bible because at least one person has explicitly called the United States a modern-day Simon of Cyrene. Many others have, whether knowingly or not, implied the same thing. This idea is imbedded in the notion of an International Rules Based Order. This ideology states that it is the United States’ responsibility to enforce this “order” for the good of humanity.
Back to the explicit reference. This was made by the Catholic televangelist Fulton J Sheen. He had a very popular television show during the 1950s and 1960s. Although Catholic, he preached a generic Christian message to his audience. In Episode 12, of his show Life is Worth Living, he explicitly calls America Simon of Cyrene. The show itself is titled “The Glory of Being an American”. While Fulton Sheen may seem old fashioned and passe, the ideas he runs with are still very much with us. It is worth examining them in a bit more detail.
Standard Operational Bullshit
There is nothing unique about the message of Bishop Sheen, other than his obvious eloquence. It is filled with the same old claptrap that has bedeviled the U.S from the beginning; illusions of grandeur, bordering on godhood. Much of this nonsense begins, as Bishop Sheen implies, with the nationalist myth of the American creation story. The U.S. was anointed by God to save the earth and bring goodness and light to the peoples.
Then Bishop Sheen goes on to the 20th. Century where he claims that America became an arsenal for freedom out of, hand to God he said this, sheer benevolence. This is where he makes the explicit comparison to Simon of Cyrene. The United States was just minding its own business when they were made to take up this cross, as unwilling as Simon himself was. Yet, God anointed the U.S. to do this and so the U.S. responded to “Providence laying its hands on America”. Wow! That is a thick layer of manure the good Bishop laid down upon an all too eager 1950s audience.
A Parabolic Bishop
If you put the Bishop’s BS on a graph it would look like the proverbial hockey stick thrust upward, totally parabolic. Yet, his analysis is no different than the commonly accepted version of U.S. history and current foreign policy motivations. Any cursory study of history should lead a reasonable person to ask, when has any nation acted like this?
The reality of U.S. global involvement looks nothing like the unwilling Simon of Cyrene having another’s cross thrust upon him. Like all nations the United States acted in its perceived interests. This was true when foreign meant the unconquered parts of North America and it continued onto the world stage in the 1890s. Like all growing and prosperous nation states the U.S. was able to influence major parts of the world.
This was certainly true in its East Asian involvement after it took over what was left of the tottering Spanish empire after the Spanish-American War in 1898. It continued to have major influence in its dealings with Latin America, Europe, and Africa all during and up to its successful completion of the Second World War. After WWII the U.S. solidified its imperial status and become the sole global hegemon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The U.S. used its influence to increase its power, to advance its control over other nations and to line its pockets. I have written about the financial motivation of U.S. empire previously. The U.S. has become an empire like all the other empires before, doing so while telling itself that it was all for the good of humanity. The United States has been no worse in this regard than any other empire, simply no different. The only difference is in the global reach of the U.S., given the way history played out and the enormous resources at the disposal of this American Empire.
All of this empire building has occurred, as it always does, with an increasing amount of coercion and centralized governmental control. The size and scope of the U.S. government has grown exponentially along with the empire. Yes, the welfare state has grown too, often funded indirectly with the spoils of empire. Even Rome had bread and circuses to keep the masses in line. Governments are by definition coercive entities, and the more government, the more coercion. Empire requires a large government indeed.
This is why the government seeks to curtail “disinformation” (defined as inconvenient truths about government control). This is why with government approval and direction anyone suggesting that the U.S. negotiate a peace in Ukraine is labeled as being on Putin’s payroll. In the end, free speech along with a free economy is a luxury that the empire cannot afford.
This is one reason, the other being that it is malignantly violent, that all international relations are immoral. This is doubly so when speaking of an imperial power such as the United States. The Simon of Cyrene story is simply a myth that people tell themselves and others to justify actions that should make any humane individual blanche. It is particularly disheartening that a Bishop would roll out this argument, but Fulton Sheen is hardly the only cleric to do so. Sadly, the churches are filled with religious leaders spewing forth violence justifying myth. What then are followers of Christ to do?
The Call of Real Peace
Any Christian response begins with faith. It is our trust in God’s good and gracious word that should drive all our actions. We respond to God’s gifts of grace upon grace by doing the best we can to live as God intends for His children to do. The lodestar and exemplar of that response is Jesus himself. “What would Jesus do?” is a cliché because it is a legitimate question. However, it is a question we do not really need to ask, because we already know what Jesus did.
The emulation of Jesus means that we seek to harm no one. We seek to love all, even our enemies. Practically speaking this means that government is irrelevant to Jesus as I discussed earlier. Earthly power structures are competing worship centers and a 1st. Commandment violation. We are to serve God and our fellow brothers and sisters. This takes us out of the realm of politics and into the world of voluntary cooperation. God’s plan is so much richer and profoundly meaningful than power politics could ever be.
That said, the question arises, what do we do in the here and now? We live in a world of government, nation states and empires. How are we supposed to respond to that. Matthew 10:16 gives us a clue. Here Jesus tells us that He is sending us out as sheep but that we are to be as “shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves”. Jesus knows what an awful place this world is, and God knows we will not be perfect in our response to His gift of salvation. So acting shrewdly would see us engage in harm reduction.
This means not demanding moral perfection as if the world was black and white, good and evil all the time. This is the “moral” framework that empire apologists use to justify the continuation of wars that slaughter innocents (such as in Ukraine) rather than seeking a negotiated settlement. Shrewd serpents know that the world is complex and messy, so we seek to get the shit down to shoe level, so to speak.
This means rejecting out of hand as dangerously simplistic and imperially self-serving, ideas like comparing America to Simon of Cyrene. It means making a cogent, practical case for peace and a reduction in violence. It means demanding negotiations with national adversaries, rather than continual provocations. It means demanding diplomacy because that is what adults do. It means making a case that a peace dividend can be used to better our fellow brothers and sisters and make their lives a bit more comfortable.
Mostly, it means rejecting violence as a means by which individuals and nations should conduct themselves. Every state-to-state war is to be opposed. It is up to God’s people to give moral and practical witness to the cause of peace. This is not a call for a utopian “solution” but a practical, shrewd means of reducing the harm in the world and creating a space for the flowering of peaceful, productive interactions.
Being a follower of Christ does not mean we need to be naïve. It also does not mean that we buy into blasphemous ideas like comparing an empire to Simon of Cyrene, as if God would thrust an imperative of violence upon anyone. It means we need to let the Holy Spirit work within us to further the cause of the Prince of Peace. If we cannot find a moral and practical framework to seek some basic harm reduction in this world, then we are indeed to be most pitied. As we begin anew another church calendar year with the arrival of Advent, let us recommit to being the kind of shrewd serpents Jesus intends us to be-peace loving ones.
Praise Be to God