Consigning Christendom to history

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 Even now, with both monarch and church seen by many as antiquated and outdated systems, we still have an established state church, and bishops have a stake in state government via their automatic seat in the House of Lords.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…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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7 Responses to Consigning Christendom to history

  1. Ray Shoop says:

    I enjoyed your article. Oddly, I just finished researching Russia’s past century of Communist totalitarian, and its militant atheism imposed by the government from 1917 to 1991. They persecuted all religious beliefs, destroyed thousands of churches and murdered hundreds of thousands of priests, sisters and others. They forced children to learn and practice atheism to the point where their parents were scared to tell them about God.
    To me, it points out that too much of one or the other is not good. This season of selection a republican to run against what we, here in the US, now have in office, scares the living hell out of me. When candidates begin saying, “God told me to run”, is downright eerie. They say money is power, and who besides worldwide conglomerates have enough money to fill the pockets of our representatives in Washington? Of course, the answer is churches or those operating the churches. I’m an atheist, but I would not want Washington overflowing with atheists Thanks and have a pleasant day.

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    • Hi Ray, thanks for your comment as always. I think you’re right – neither extreme is helpful or healthy. Totalitarian atheism is as bad as totalitarian religion; it’s not particularly the atheism or the religion that’s the problem but the totalitarianism (or in other words fundamentalism given political power). I’m terrified at the prospect of Rick Santorum getting into the White House, and I pray wholeheartedly that he won’t!!

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  2. Theothedog says:

    In many ways, of course, the Church (especially the Church of England) still very much enjoys a ‘privileged place in society and the corridors of power’ (just think about the recent debate about bishops in the House of Lords). And personally I’m glad that it does. On the one hand, the presence of a rational Christian voice near the centre of things is one reason, surely, why the lunatic fringe-cum-mainstream we see in American evangelical Republicanism stands such little chance of influencing the political scene in Britian (and indeed, if often for slightly different reasons, elsewhere in Europe). And the fact that we have an established church nowadays has very little to do with power and much more with responsibility: the Church of England still has the responsibility, and it’s a sacred and crucial one, to offer some kind of Christian presence in every parish in the country; and this responsibility is increasingly, and wisely, seen as a responsibility to represent FAITH more broadly and sensitively, rather than any specific denominational or theological perspectives. Today’s a sad day, though, because who, let’s face it, incarnates this healthy perspective of benign, benevolent breadth based on strength, security and accountability more persuasively than Rowan Williams? Seldom if ever has there been a modern archbishop better able to provide the kind of leadership you and I, for sure, both regard as terribly important in society. I find it hard not to see today as a triumph for weak, hostile Christianity over the strong, benign, gracious and inclusive version – Rowan indeed has implied something rather like that himself. Makes me weep, it really does. But, even if a skirmish has been lost, the good fight as a whole hasn’t.

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    • Hi Theo, yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly. My piece was very one-sided, and it’s important to be reminded of the other – or at least an other – side. While I do get frustrated with the C of E and some of the ramblings of a few its bishops in the House of Lords, I’m still very glad to be a member of its communion, and I do think it plays a very important role in society.

      Your comment was timely in two ways. First, the next piece I was (and still am) planning to put up was a response to your question to me at Christmas about David Cameron and the EU. And second, because Rowan Williams visited our church today to take part in our 20th anniversary celebrations. I’ve long respected and liked him, but hearing him speak in person I was tremendously struck by his unassuming humility, his wisdom, his graciousness, and – I don’t know what else to call it – his goodness. Here, it seemed to me, was the real thing; a genuinely godly human being. I can completely understand why he no longer wishes to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, but like you I see his resignation as a tragic loss to the church.

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  3. Eng Hoe says:

    Hi, I just found your blog and from what I’ve read so far I like some of the things you say. I especially like what you said about love, and not power, being the center of Christianity .. and also what you said at the end of your article about why God does not sort out the world. I have a somewhat similar belief that’s in Appendix 10 of my book ‘The Gospel of the Kingdom – Revealing the Heart of God’ : yhttp://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-Kingdom-Revealing-Heart/dp/1477409408. God is intentionally allowing all that happens to us, waiting and watching to see who are the ones who would turn to Him and learn His love and overcome with His love – they are the bride He is coming back for.

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    • Dear Eng Hoe, thanks very much for your kind comment. I’ve looked up your book on Amazon and it sounds very interesting and inspiring. I also have huge admiration for the amazing work you’ve done among the poor.

      I don’t think I can fully agree with your perspective that God intentionally allows everything that happens to us in order to see who will turn to him. I certainly don’t believe that he intends or plans everything that happens, though he does in a sense allow it (otherwise it couldn’t happen). But for example, I can’t believe that God intended or willed either the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting or the Chenpeng Village primary school stabbing this week. What I do strongly believe is that he is present in these terrible events and that he wishes to redeem them, bringing meaning and hope in the midst of suffering and loss.

      I believe that we live in a world where (at this point) not everything is how God intends it to be. We have great freedom to hurt and harm, to spoil and destroy; God does not want that, but he allows it. But through it all God is with us, and he is working to bring his Kingdom of love and goodness – a kingdom that cannot be imposed by force, but must grow by love.

      God bless you,
      Harvey

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      • Eng Hoe says:

        Thanks for your reply. I used to lead disaster relief teams. Then I worked among the desperately poor. I had to come to a reconcilation of verses like Matt.10:29, Isa.54:16, Am.3:6, Rom.8:20-21, Rom. chaps 9 – 11, etc. I struggled with this issue for some time. I cannot say I have come to a conclusion on the matter but I would like to share with you what I have come to understand and would like to hear your thoughts on it. I don’t have your email add. If you send me an email, I can reply you and share with you what I have written on the Bibilcal Perspective on Disasters and What About Suffering? and Why God put the 2 trees in the garden of eden.

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