What Happens When People Get Bored Waiting for God

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. (Exodus 32:1-6).

I have a theory, and it has to do with how we found ourselves in the mess we currently are in.  And my mess, I am referring in particular to this:


How did we find ourselves in the place where church choirs are singing songs in praise of, of all people, Donald Trump?  What the hell is going on here?

I talked before about the idea of "Christ versus Empire"--that Christianity comes into being as a movement of resistance to the Roman Empire.  Because the Roman Empire was a total institution--a fusion of military, economic, cultural, and moral ideas--the Christian resistance to that Empire was also total.  In other words, it was both a resistance to the political program of the Roman Empire (the way it was governed, the notion that imperial power was good, etc.) as well as what you might call the moral and religious program of the Empire (the worship of Roman gods, the sexual practices, etc.)

That resistance came to an end, or at least radically changed, during the "Constantinian moment" in the early part of the 4th Century.  For those who are believers in the "Christ versus Empire" lens, this Constantinian moment is usually presented, if perhaps tacitly, as a straight-forward sell-out.  Under this view, the bishops of the church in the 4th Century, when presented with the opportunity to become big-shots in Constantine's re-formulated Empire, just straight-forwardly abandoned their principles and signed on to this project.  Thinking about this more--and here is where my theory comes in--I think that story needs to be nuanced a bit.

What Constantine was offering the church, if unspoken, was a partial conversion--we will abandon the moral and religious program of the Empire and replace it with the Christian program, and in return we will keep the political program of the Empire essentially intact.  That the 4th Century bishops took this bargain is beyond dispute.  But I think the bishops in that moment saw it as the half-a-loaf that it was, and made a pragmatic decision to accept the deal that was on offer.

That decision can be defended on several grounds.  First, accepting that deal meant that their flock would stop being killed.  The period immediately before Constantine was the worst of the Roman persecutions.  As much as this martyrdom was glorified as a testament to the power of faith (both at the time and after the fact), it was a human tragedy of enormous proportions and it is difficult to fault a leader who was tasked with protecting his people for wanting to make it stop.  Would you be willing to turn that down, knowing that it would consign many of your brothers and sisters to death?

Second, the Roman moral system was horrible by any reasonable definition, and getting rid of it was a net positive.  There is a temptation for people who have problems with the Christian moral order that replaced it, especially the sex parts (and, to be clear, I am one of those people), to glorify the thing that came before it as some sort of enlightenment that was snuffed out.  This is nonsense--the level of casual brutality and exploitation that was tolerated, even encouraged, under Roman norms would be unthinkable today.  Even with regard to sex, Roman morality elevated free male sexual autonomy at the expense of providing no sexual autonomy to anyone else--nothing whatsoever like what is being proposed in a modern context.

Those two grounds are justifiable, even in light of what we know was to come.  But, I suspect there were two other things going through the minds of the first generation of post-Constantinian bishops that have not fared as well through the test of time.  First, I think they believed that the values of Christianity would so thoroughly penetrate Constantine's re-imagined Empire that they would end up getting both the politics and the morality eventually.  You see this idea in Augustine's City of God, as well as in the writings of the Cappadocian fathers--a truly Christian Empire will be a different kind of political structure, because it will be permeated with the values of the Gospel.  And, so went the logic, if the Christian Empire were to get out of line, we the bishops have a "seat at the table" and will be able to bring it back into line.

That was perhaps reasonable at the time it was formulated, but it was deeply naive.  What actually happened is well described by the political science concept of "regulatory capture."  Again and again you see that regulators who are appointed by the government to regulate business activities on behalf of the people eventually become "captured" and start to serve the interests of the businesses they are supposed to be regulating.  There are manifold covert and overt ways that this happens, but one of the biggest ways this happens is that, in order to be an effective regulator, you need to understand deeply the thing you are regulating.  In order to understand the thing you are regulating, you have to move in the same circles and have the same educational background as those running the thing you are regulating.  But, once you do that, you end up forming a "class identity" with the people running the thing, creating a gravitational pull toward the interests and ideologies of the folks being regulated.  Pretty soon, you are thinking first about the interests of your "buddies," as opposed to doing the thing you were there to do in the first place.

That's exactly what happened with the Christian church.  It may have started out with the idea that the church would regulate the Empire and keep it in line, but in order to do so it had to move in Imperial circles.  In order to move in Imperial circles, the church had to adopt Imperial ways and norms.  By adopting Imperial ways and norms, the church was taking on values that made it increasingly unable to keep in the Empire in line, leading to capture.  No matter how much the early fathers may have wanted the church to colonize the Empire, what actually happened (and happened very rapidly), was that the Empire colonized the church.

But the second thing that happened was that the Christian church accepted the opportunity to get a "win" over the Empire because it got tired of losing and tired of waiting around for God.  Here is where the Exodus story quoted above really comes into play.  The people of Israel were camped at the base of Mount Sinai, waiting for Moses to come down with the word of God.  But, as Exodus makes abundantly clear, the people got tired of waiting for Moses, and so they pushed on Aaron to give them something "real" that they could celebrate.  They wanted a clear win to hold onto--something that they could project their sense of victory onto and replace the vagueness of whatever God was doing with Moses on top of the mountain.  And Aaron gave the people what they wanted.

The Christian church also gave the people what they wanted--to be important, to be favored by God, to be a chosen people under a unique blessing with God-ordained leadership moving from strength to strength.  Christendom is enticing precisely because it fills the human need to be winners.  The post-Constantinian Christians didn't want to be a small, persecuted minority with no power and at the whims of bigger forces anymore, and the Golden Calf of Christendom provided the escape from that.  All of us want to be winners, and the hardest part of the message of both Judaism and Christianity for us to accept is that God is the God of the losers, and that God identifies with the losers far, far more than the winners.  Christendom is the church's affirmative response to the people saying "come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Jesus, the man who rose from the dead, we do not know what has become of Him."

Which leads us directly to Trump.  The obscene vaudeville of Christian leaders praising Trump as a crypto (or not so crypto) Messiah is nothing more than the 200 proof distillation of Christendom.  These pastors have convinced themselves that Trump is somehow doing God's will, when it is clear to everyone who has eyes to see that they are simply doing Trump's will.  And why?  To be winners.  To feel like God is working on the earth now so that they don't have to wait on the ambiguous promises to come.  Trump is literally the Golden Calf, and they would rather dance around it than wait around for the voice of Jesus.

Some people might say, "oh, so now you decide that Christianity and Empire are incompatible, when the guy running Empire is not the guy you wanted?"  That's an important criticism that needs to be taken seriously.  The Age of Trump didn't create this problem, it exposes a problem that has been there for a long time.  While I can say unapologetically that I believe, on balance, that the Democratic Party platform is more consistent with Christian values than the Republican platform, a "Religious Left" that seeks to use the tools and procedures of Empire to "enforce" and "support" the Christian faith as they understand it would be every bit as problematic and inconsistent with the core of Christianity as what the pro-Trump.  I don't think this sort of mirror-image is what people like Rev. Barber have in mind, but if he does, then we must oppose it with every bit as much force as we might oppose the Trump folks.  Because the lesson of our Christian lineage is that when the Church gets in bed with Empire, the message of Jesus is always the thing that gets lost in the shuffle.

Because, at the end of the day, there is nothing new or unique about these politico-religious rallies for Trump.  It's a replay of the Orthodox Church promoting a theology of symphonia, a fancy term for the Church becoming a tool of the state.  It's a replay of the Pope Urban II blessing a war of conquest and exploitation in the Holy Land under the heretical and obscene banner of "God wills it."  It's a replay of American churches blessing the enslavement and genocide of other beloved-by-God human beings.  No, there is nothing new here.

Fortunately, we don't have to repeat the same mistakes that our ancestors made.  We have an opportunity to do Christianity differently.  We can reject Christendom which has polluted our faith so thoroughly for so long.  It will take patience and a willingness to be one of the losers, which is a far harder burden then most give it credit for being.  But it can be done, and I think the early signs of it happening are around us.

In one, and perhaps only one, way Trump has been a blessing, because he has exposed what has been hidden for so long:


Amen.

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