Pirates and Emperors

I always felt a resonance with this anecdote from the preface to Noam Chomsky’s book Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World.

St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great, who asked him, “how he dares molest the sea.”

“How dare you molest the whole world?” the pirate replied: “Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an Emperor.”

Augustine, for the record, agreed wholeheartedly with this pirate’s conclusion—and the connection to today’s world, of course, is obvious.

Having been so much in the world of interview lately, I recall with great fondness the opportunity I had to interview Noam Chomsky a few years back, at MIT, for Uganda Rising.

An excerpt that is incomplete in that there have been compelling, courageous pockets all through history of Christianity’s ‘revolutionary church of the poor’ roots blooming, but the basic premise of the excerpt is clear—that such revolutionary ideas are seldom encouraged by Power:

Pete: Back to Rwanda and the genocide there, there was something I wanted to ask you about. I’ve read that the Christian Church in Rwanda was often complicit in the genocide, with priests carrying arms and actually being involved in some butcherings and so forth. This shocked me, but then I started to think about history. How would you explain the connection between colonialism and the Church?

Noam Chomsky: Well, it’s a long story actually. I mean, look, the first couple of centuries of the Church, it was a church of the poor. It was a revolutionary church of the poor. That’s what the gospels are about. When you read the gospels, that’s what they say.

It was picked up by the emperor Constantine and he turned it into the church of the rich and the powerful. The cross—which was the symbol of suffering and oppression—became the symbol on the shield of the Roman soldiers. From then on, the church was the Church of the rich and powerful.

It’s changed to some extent—in fact, very dramatically, in Latin America, primarily, in the 1960s and 70s. The church went back to the gospels. It was called the preferential option for the poor. Priests and nuns and layworkers were working with peasants and running base communities in which they studied the gospels as they really are.

You know, that caused a violent reaction. The U.S. went to war against the Church in Latin America. I’ve got a picture right back there [points to his wall] which describes it. The 1980s, particularly under Reagan, was largely a war against the Catholic Church. A massive war against liberation theology and it’s not hidden.

The ’80s opened in Central America with the murder of an archbishop [Romero], and ended with the murder of six leading Latin American Jesuit intellectuals, all by forces closely linked to the United States or trained and armed by the United States—who meanwhile killed tens of thousands of the usual victims.

The full interview is here—and, as always with Noam, full of insights, revelations and unthought-of-angles. I remain amazed by the processing power of the man’s brain, and his remarkable, generous work ethic.

Here’s to freedom, solidarity and love,



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