I’m afraid I know the dreaded “little bit” about history, so this might be misleading. But the story in my head is that Christianity was an on-again, off-again persecuted religion in its early days. Around the end of the third century and beginning of the fourth, Constantine at least partially embraced Christianity (at least its symbols). When he became Emperor of Rome he legalized the religion of Christianity. He institutionalized it. He made it an imperial religion.
Those Councils of the church, that issued those statements of beliefs, those Creeds we often recite in worship to define our faith – Constantine initiated some of those Councils, presided over them. The persecution stopped. The church could build an institution, worship in beautiful buildings, I think the church grew faster in that time than any other time in history (I’m not sure, with the possible exception of recent times, in the two-thirds world). But it was a devil’s bargain, in hindsight. Where Jesus spoke truth to Empire, challenged Empire, was killed by Empire, Christianity under Constantine became Empire.
Jesus said, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other one also.” How then did the church come to the point of proclaiming Crusades? We… accommodated. We adjusted our religion to suit the needs of imperial power. It is the price of escaping persecution. Empire smiles only on clients and obedient servants. So that is what we became. And we were so good at it that now, we are discovering that Western Christianity has a hard time distinguishing any difference at all between white Eurocentric “civilization” (Empire) and the religion we still call Christianity. We have become the Empire.
A radically anti-hierarchical spirituality has become a support pillar for the many hierarchies of the imperial status quo: men over women, masters over slaves, kings over subjects, the wealthy over the poor, whites over all others. To even question these hierarchies engenders cries of blasphemy and attack on the fundamentals of religion – even though Jesus said, “the last shall be first.”
A spirituality whose Scripture and story begin with the creation of a world in love, a Creation called “very good,” and a garden in which humanity is called to be the gardeners has become a support pillar for an unsustainable economy of exploitation, that sees the earth as nothing more than a repository of resources for our use and a place to dump our waste. Capitalism and upward mobility is the unquestioned cornerstone of a religion whose founder said, “sell all you have, give to the poor, and then come follow me.”
A spirituality whose primary commandments are love – and indeed, which says that without love, absolutely nothing is valid – has become mostly about belief, and who is in and who is out. These beliefs have become essentially tribal markers, indicating who is a neighbor to be loved, and who is an enemy to be fought – even though Jesus explicitly repudiated this idea in one of his most famous and cherished parables. But imperial politics requires enemies, and so we have accommodated. Our once-loving spirituality has become a pillar of support for the politics of division.
And perhaps most usefully to the Empire, a religion that was about freedom for the slaves, healing for the sick, welcome to the outcast, good news to the poor, the very mending of the world (“thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”), has become a religion that is about nothing more than getting to heaven after we die. Indeed, a significant portion of the church holds the bizarre theology that God will wipe the current world away, destroy it and re-make it in the end (even though, supposedly, the rainbow is a symbol of God’s promise NOT to do that). So it doesn’t matter at all what happens here and now, and the religion of freedom and healing has become a pillar of support for the status quo. You’ll get your reward in heaven if you sit down and shut up now.
The church is not pure evil. Of course not. But alas that it has taken so much wrongdoing and suffering to wake up to the realization that it is long past time for us to get out of bed with Empire. It’s time to divorce Constantine.
Um… I think we’ll lose the house. I’m pretty sure that this divorce is going to get ugly, and I’m betting most of the assets will stay with Constantine. But we might find our soul again, and I’m beginning to be excited about that.