Divorcing Constantine: taking out the trash

Phyllis Tickle, I believe in her book The Great Emergence, makes popular the notion that the Western Church goes through a major re-set every 500 years or so.  Roughly, it would look like this:  1000 BC, the monarchy.  500 BC, the Exile.  Jesus, at the turn of the dates.  500 would be the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of monasticism in the Dark Ages.  1000 was the split between East and West.  1500 was the Protestant Reformation, and today is… today. 


At these times the (western) church has what Phyllis Tickle calls a great garage sale, in which significant things that had been precious (but are now liabilities) go out the door.  I’m not sure garage sale is quite the right metaphor:  maybe spring cleaning.  Thanks to some wise teachers and friends, I think I am able to identify some of the things that need to go, but I don’t want to sell them to someone else.  These things need to go to the dump. 


  • The notion that religion is a badge of identity, that identifies “us” over against “them.”  This makes religion a camp to sit in, rather than a path to walk.  It creates, upholds, and emphasizes divisions – over against the clear call of our gospel to grow in love and therefore create, uphold, and emphasize unity.  The religious quest is not about privilege or exclusion — it is about connection.
  • The notion that religions are competitive truth-claims, and that there is only one “chosen people of God.”  If I think that the beliefs of my religion are endorsed by God, and none else are, then I can’t help but look down on all others who differ, and my missional task becomes to make others like me in order that they may be saved.  This reverses the gospel call, which puts love (which is eternal) ahead of knowledge (which is always partial and “in a mirror dimly.”)
  • In general, Jesus challenges the notion of hierarchy, which is so important to colonial society.  There is a hierarchy of religions, a hierarchy of races, a hierarchy in wealth and social status, hierarchies in power, hierarchy in the sexes…  Jesus explicitly and directly challenged all of these, and I believe it is time to purge our thinking and our practice of hierarchy. 
  • The notion of upward mobility needs to go to the dump, in the church.  The “American Dream” is so ingrained in us that we fail to see the challenge presented to this notion both by Jesus and by Levitical law (such as the Jubilee).  We expect an increase in our own material prosperity, we expect churches to grow into bigger and bigger buildings and congregations, we expect our salaries to grow as we progress in our ecclesiastical careers.  Jesus did not climb the social ladder; he emptied himself.  The constant demand for more is killing our biosphere. 
  • Speaking of the biosphere and the Creation, the colonial notion that humanity is separate from and placed over creation (there’s that hierarchy again) has to go.  Colonial society sees the earth as something to be subdued and ruled over, simply a collection of resources for us to use for our own benefit, and a place to dump our refuse.  It is but a temporary home on our way to eternity.  Theologically and scientifically, though, we are “earthlings.”  We are formed of the earth, never separate, sharing the fate of the earth of which we are a part.  And creation is sacred; God creates it, loves it, and is incarnate in it. 
  • Perhaps one more will do for now.  We need to lose the idea that religion is about the next life – that it is about heaven or hell, about doing what it takes to get our pie in the sky bye and bye when we die.  In what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” we are taught to pray that God’s Kin-dom come, that God’s will be done on earth.  Christianity is not properly a lifeboat out of this world, to some future and other-worldly heaven, but a path to find heaven (beloved community?) right here and now.  Shifting the focus to this life from the next one changes almost everything. 

In an earlier post, I suggested that the church essentially sold its soul when, in order to escape persecution, we threw in with Constantine and became another imperial religion.  Instead of being a radically challenging, transformational movement, we became part of the institutional apparatus that maintains and upholds the imperial status quo.  Instead of refusing military service, now we host Remembrance Day ceremonies.  Instead of St. Francis we raise up Kreflo Dollar.  It’s no accident that a national flag is a prominent part of so many churches.  It will be a tremendous challenge to find our soul again – an exciting challenge, I think, though not without cost – and part of that challenge will be in changing our thinking, changing our assumptions, changing our mental allegiance from Caesar to Jesus. 


In future posts, I’ll try to expand on the relinquishment that is ahead of the church, and what it might mean for us.