The Shape of Progressive Theology, Part 5--Christ versus Empire

Christianity came into existence in a very specific historical context--in the midst of a people who were part of the Roman Empire.  Rome in the early 30s A.D. was not at the absolute peak of its power (that would come about one hundred years later), but Rome was certainly in its ascendancy, and it was the most powerful empire in the history of the Mediterranean region up to that point.  Like all empires before and since, Roman power ultimately was grounded in overwhelming military might--its legions were everywhere, its naval power made the Mediterranean a "Roman lake."  But it wasn't just military power--Rome was also the masters of what we would now call "soft power," in the form of political power and influence, cultural power, economic power.  These forms of power were interrelated and mutually reinforcing--economic power facilitated and funded military power, while military power kept the peace that prevented economic disruptions; the power of Rome made its cultural institutions attractive, and the embrace of that culture drew the people closer to Rome.  The Roman Empire was a total institution--it dominated all aspects of life, and its scope and reach made it difficult to imagine a world in which Rome was not in charge and everywhere.

But it was not simply that Christianity came into existence in the midst of the Roman Empire; perhaps more important was the fact that Christianity came into existence on the margins of that Empire.  Judea and Galilee where Jesus walked was a troublesome backwater province of the Empire, sandwiched in between ancient and rich Egypt, centrally located Syria, and the fraught border of Mesopotamia.  The Jews, who as we know formed the pool from which the first Christian believers come, were not exactly model subjects from the standpoint of Rome, as seen by the fact that in the generations immediately after Jesus Rome would have to mount several expensive military campaigns to beat them down and make an example of them to the rest of Rome's conquered people.  When Christianity began to spread out of its Middle Eastern incubator, it grew primarily among the lower classes and the socially marginalized such as women and slaves.  Christianity did not start out as a religion of the conquerors, but a religion of the conquered.

We can see this clearly in the New Testament, particularly if we understand something of Rome and its iconography and propaganda.  For example, the imperial rulers of Rome, going back to Augustus Caesar, styled themselves as the "son of god," and promoted the idea that they were divine or semi-divine entities.  In John's Gospel, the crowd tells Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and "when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever."  (John 19:8).  Jesus claiming to be the Messiah was an internal matter for Jews and Judaism, and thus no real concern of a Roman like Pontius Pilate; Jesus claiming to be the Son of God, claiming to be on the level of Tiberias Caesar, was a different matter altogether.  It was a challenge to the heart of Rome and Rome's understanding of itself as the singular and unchallenged locus of power in the world (a point that the crowd makes to Pilate when he tries to release Jesus--"If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor." (John 19:12)).

This theme gets picked up in a big way by Paul.  The Greek word euangelion, from which we get "evangelism" and "evangelical" and literally means "good news," referred to the official propaganda announcements of Rome that extolled its military victories.  By claiming, for example at the beginning of Romans 1, that Jesus's death and resurrection is euangelion, Paul is implicitly but pointedly claiming that all of the other euangelion that the members of Christian community in Rome was exposed to was, ultimately, "fake news" to use the term of our day.  Anglican scripture scholar N.T. Wright sums up Paul's political program in a pithy way--"Jesus is Lord, and therefore, Caesar is not," and if Caesar is not lord, then the Roman Empire is at least somewhat illegitimate.  Christianity in its early days was explicitly and essentially political, a religion of resistance to the seemingly overwhelming power of Rome.

This story, however, takes a hard turn in October 312, when a Roman general named Constantine, according to the accounts, instructs his armies to put the cross, the Christian symbol par excellance, on their shields when fighting a battle at a place known as the Milvian Bridge.  Constantine wins the battle, and initiates one of the more stunning reversals of history--Christianity and Christians go from being actively persecuted before Constantine to the official, exclusive religion of the Roman Empire by the time of Theodosius in 381.  In basically two generations, Christianity goes from being a religion of marginalized political rebels to a religion of the powerful backed by state power--Christ goes from being the locus of resistance to Empire to being the locus of worship by Empire.

The subsequent history of Christianity is a history of Christianity that is part and parcel of various attempts at Christian Empire--Roman, Byzantine, "Holy Roman," Roman Catholic, French, English, Spanish, Russian, Protestant German, American.  While each has a different spin on the precise relationship between Christ and Empire, the common thread is that these two ideas can and should be held together, that while their might be tension between Christ and Empire, there is no essential conflict.  Insofar as the partisans of these imperial projects engaged with the history of the early church and its anti-imperial rhetoric, they diagnosed the problem with the Roman Empire as its lack of Christianity--Rome had religious and political values that were different from, and often opposed to, those of Christianity.  Once Constantine made the Roman Empire Christian, so this account goes, the problem disappeared.

At least in the West, there is much talk about the end of "Christendom," or the political, cultural, and religious reality where Christianity (in one or more forms) is the dominant religious institution in society to which the bulk of people at least formally belong.  Some, Rod Dreher comes to mind, see the end of Christendom as a catastrophe, threatening to unravel all of the accomplishments of Constantine and his successors.  If right political governance is that which is, to some degree, guided by Christianity in an official sense, then our increasingly non-Christian politics are indeed problematic.

But there is another way to understand early Christian history, not as a challenge to the Roman Empire for its lack of Christianity, but as a challenge to the concept of Empire itself.  What was illegitimate about Rome, on this view, is the way that it forged this comprehensive fusion of military, economic, cultural, and religious power to control and dominate and subjugate.  The effort to dominate the world and the lives of all of its people is inherently illegitimate and counter to the message of Christ.  Critically, if you believe that the imperial project is inherently illegitimate, then every Empire is illegitimate insofar as it attempts to place itself as the unquestioned authority.  Even, and perhaps especially, if it claims to do so in the name of Jesus Christ.  [Ed: Brian Zahnd lays this out clearly and forcefully here].

On this alternative reading of the Christian story, Constantine's project of taking the Roman Empire, essentially as it was, and making it Christian is inherently flawed.  More specifically, the term "Christian Empire" is a contradiction in terms, and Christianity is necessarily and intrinsically opposed to Empire in all of its forms.  On this view, we might extend Wright's statement to read "Jesus is Lord, and therefore, Caesar is not, and neither is anyone else who would claim the mantle of Caesar, even if they claim to be Christian."  The fall of Christendom, far from being a tragedy, becomes an enormous and welcome opportunity to recover a more authentic Christianity that had been by-and-large lost for a millennia and a half amid imperial dreams.

This alternative view is the dominant vision of Progressive Christianity as we sit at the tail end of Christendom.  But it brings with it a set of challenges, the most pressing of which is how to manage all of the legacy that imperial Christianity has brought to us.  The vast majority of the intellectual and spiritual tradition of Christianity comes out of the post-Constantinian period.  There are those, and I would say Tripp Fuller from Homebrewed Christianity is the most thoughtful and articulate advocate of this view that I have encountered, who would say that most or all of this heritage is tainted by that imperial legacy, and needs to be viewed with suspicion.  Fuller, for example, will often quote Alfred North Whitehead's statement that "[w]hen the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers."  I believe that goes too far, and I don't think that Progressive Christianity is going to totally embrace the thorough theological root canal that Process theologians like Fuller call for, but in any event it is necessary to untangle the parts of our inherited theology that are intertwined with an imperial vision of Christianity.

Once place where that untangling is occurring for sure is around the question of war and pacifism.  There has always been a pacifistic strand running through Christianity, but it has in general represented a minority position within Christianity as a whole.  But if Christianity is fundamentally opposed to Empire, and an essential tool of Empire is war and military power, than it follows logically that military power is going to be suspect.  Even Pope Francis has made noises about tossing Augustine's Just War theory, which in many ways is the lynch-pin of the harmony of imperial aims and Christianity.  I predict that we will see a noticeable turn toward pacifism among Christians, and not necessarily only among self-identified progressive Christians, as Christianity one way or the other de-couples itself from Empire and imperial ambitions.  The concept of "peace churches," once mostly limited to the Quakers and the Mennonites and other discrete groups, might expand to include the bulk of Progressive Christianity, if for no other reason than it is the most logical reading of the Gospel--after all, Jesus does tell us to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us.

Related to this, there is going to be (if it is not already happening) a reckoning regarding how to deal with governments generally, especially in the United States.  If you understand the United States to be the modern day Empire (and, guess what, it is), then the question of Christ versus Empire can be expected to burn the hottest in the United States.  And, indeed, we are seeing that happening, with the unlikely figure of Donald Trump acting as a catalyst.  Think about the fact that the majority of evangelicals and white Catholics did and continue to support Trump, but more importantly think about why they support him.  Trump has promised to maintain Christians (more specifically, white Christians) in a privileged place in the cultural space, visa ve Muslims and LGBT people.  Trump also promises to more effectively use US power to advance US interests around the world, even if those interest are at the expense of non-US people.  Put aside the question of the credibility of Trump with regard to these claims--the appeal of Trump is an appeal to an explicitly imperial vision of what Christianity is and should be.

The incomprehension that Progressive Christians often show for why Trump would be popular among Christians exposes the fault line between pro- and anti-imperial visions of Christianity.  If you don't believe that the proper place for Christianity is to be culturally hegemonic, with that hegemony enforced by state power, then Trump's message is nonsensical and abhorrent from a Christian point of view.  The fact that the "religious left" appears to be a growing concern in the wake of, and as a result of, Trump, demonstrates the degree to which anti-imperial visions of Christianity are taking root in the Christian space.  After all, its not like Trump is the first President to openly advocate for white Christian hegemony at the expense of everyone else; the fact that people are reacting to it and rejecting that message shows that those ideas no longer have the universal purchase among Christians that they once did.

A Christianity that truly rejects Empire, or even a significant subset of Christianity that rejects Empire, is going to look radically different that the Christianity that we have become familiar with over the course of the last 1600 years.  I don't think anyone can say with certainty how it will shape out.  But it appears that something along those lines is coming to pass.  There are a group of people who are eager to find a way to get "do-over" of the legacy of Constantine, and the seemingly collapse of Constantine's legacy may provide that opportunity.


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