In the previous post I said that it’s not our job to cling on to a Christendom that’s best consigned to the past. What did I mean by that?
Ever since the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, and the early Christian missionaries to Britain and Europe, the Western world has been officially, even imperially, Christian. (Actually it was Constantine’s successor Theodosius who made Christianity the Roman empire’s state religion, but Constantine had already established the troubling link between Christianity and military victory – ‘in this sign you shall conquer’.) From that time up until very recently, Christianity in one form or another has continued to be the state religion of most European and Western countries.
So in medieval times we had the rule of the Popes, who were able to command kings and armies to do their bidding (saying that it was God’s bidding). Here in Britain we had a succession of monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right. Even now, with both monarch and church seen by many as antiquated and outdated systems, we still have an established state church, and bishops have a stake in state government via their automatic seat in the House of Lords. And even in the US, where church and state are separated by constitution, religious groups can sometimes wield tremendous political power – as seen in the current Republican candidate nomination race. (Dear God, please don’t let Santorum become president.)
Having enjoyed this privileged, state-sanctioned status and security for nearly two millennia, we’re reluctant to let go of it. We bemoan the erosion of Christian values in society, the decline in church attendance, the growth in secularisation, the marginalisation of the church and of Christians in the public arena. We feel like a besieged, beleaguered and misunderstood minority, and so we either try to fight back, to claw back our privileges and status, perhaps seeking alliances with earthly powers to secure our position; or else we turn in on ourselves, ignore the nasty world and become ghettoised.
Brian McLaren gave a fascinating talk at Greenbelt 2011 on this subject. Surrounded by rival belief systems and threatening world powers (he said), we tend either to adopt a ‘strong-hostile’ stance (we’re God’s chosen, our way is the only way, you’re going to hell if you don’t join us) or a ‘weak-benign’ one (your beliefs are as good as ours, we’re all on the same journey, we don’t need to bother each other). He argued that both of these are flawed responses belonging to an overarching system of ‘clenched-fist’ (or us-vs-them) narratives. These include: Domination (us ruling over them); Revolution (us fighting back against them the evil rulers); Purification (us vs some of us, a scapegoated minority who we blame for society’s ills); Victimisation/self-preservation (us despite them); Isolation (us away from the corrupt world i.e. everyone else); and Competition (us competing with them, for economic success). But Jesus came with a very different kind of story – of which more later.
An unholy alliance
So should we mourn the loss of Christendom, of the church’s privileged place in society and the corridors of power? Not in my view. I say good riddance to it, on the whole. I’m no antidisestablishmentarianist (sorry, just wanted to use that word).
The word Christendom has its roots in domain, dominion, domination – ideas of rule, ownership, control. Christendom has too often just been a collusion of church with state power in an unholy empire-building exercise, under the guise of building God’s kingdom on Earth. It’s hardly a new argument that Constantine (or Theodosius) was the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity, forging an unholy alliance of faith with military might and political power. This is the kind of power Jesus could easily have wielded had he so chosen, and which many of his first followers were sure he would wield – but which he consistently eschewed, even at the cost of his own life. One of the wilderness temptations was to rule in an earthly sense, the power and glory without the sacrifice; but Jesus refused to bow to Satan.
Unfortunately, faced with similar temptations the church has arguably succumbed time and again. And arguably from that ungodly marriage of church and state power have sprung such shameful atrocities as the Crusades, the Conquistadores, the Inquisition. These terrible blots on the history of Christianity were surely never part of Christ’s plan for his followers.
Slightly differently, you could argue too that churches in Nazi Germany colluded with the Holocaust because they were afraid to stand up against state power – which I’m not in a position to blame them for. But wherever the church is unwilling to resist state power (whether wielded with promise of reward for collusion or threat of punishment for resistance), the poor and marginalised suffer and Christ is betrayed again for a handful of silver.
A different kind of power
When religious groups or institutions become too politically powerful, it’s rarely with good effect. C.S Lewis argued that theocracies are the worst form of government (worse even than secular dictatorships) because those in power believe they are acting on behalf of God and with his sanction. They are therefore – ironically – willing to carry out the most brutal and horrific atrocities, such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ of enemies and barbaric punishments of criminals or dissidents, all justified by following God’s holy and unquestionable orders.
That’s not to say that Christians shouldn’t be in politics or government, or that those who are should leave their faith at the door. Absolutely not. But Christianity – the church – has always worked best as a grass-roots and even underground movement of the non-powerful, the non-elite. That’s partly just because power corrupts, and also because human communities tend to flourish under adversity. But there’s something more fundamental to Christianity that makes it naturally, even essentially, a movement of the disestablished rather than of the powerful.
For the heart of Christianity is love not power – at least not power as the world understands it, in terms of might, force, strength of arms, wealth, status, even authority. Love can only win by self-sacrifice, by giving freely of itself; it cannot coerce or impose itself by force or decree. We serve the mighty God, creator and ruler of all the universe, yes, but we find that his power and rule are the power and the rule of love.
Of course, the Bible does say that Christians are to reign and rule in the new earth, but it’s a very different kind of reign from any government the world has seen yet, mirroring Christ’s very different kind of kingship. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:42-45). Or again, Philippians 2, “[Christ] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”. Or Jesus washing his followers’ feet in John 13, or countless other passages with the same message. It’s not the mighty but the meek who will ultimately inherit the earth – ‘meek’ meaning strength held in check, power exercised with kindness and gentleness.
Returning to Brian McLaren, he went on to argue that Jesus came with an alternative kind of story to the usual ‘clenched-fist’ narratives; the ‘open-hand’ story of the Kingdom of God. In this new story, domination is replaced with service, revolution with reconciliation, scapegoating with welcome and inclusion, isolation with incarnation and identification, competition with generous self-giving, and self-preservation with seeking the common good. Rooted in this new narrative, we can change our ‘strong-hostile’ or ‘weak-benign’ positions towards other groups and faiths to a ‘strong-benevolent’ one: ‘because I follow Jesus, I love you; I stand with you in solidarity; you are made in God’s image’.
Christendom is dead; long live the Kingdom of Christ.
Postscript: the sovereignty of submission
Why doesn’t God just sort out the world? We see all the problems in our own lives and in the wider world, and we wonder why doesn’t God do something? If he cares so much, why doesn’t he use his omnipotent power to fix things, to sort everything out? It’s the age-old question.
There are of course many answers to this, and I’ve explored some of them elsewhere. But in light of the current discussion, it occurs to me that one major possibility is simply that God’s power and God’s rule don’t work like this. The kingdom of heaven is built from the roots up by a love that transforms hearts, minds and communities; it can’t be imposed from above by power and control.
So when crap happens, it’s not because God wanted it to; when he doesn’t quickly sort it out it’s not because he doesn’t care. Perhaps it’s actually because he’s not ruling in the kind of way that imposes his order and goodness on a messed-up world. He’s ruling rather in a way that gradually redeems the world from the bottom up, bit by bit, heart by heart, person by person until Christ is all in all and the earth is filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea…