Thursday, March 13, 2014

Constantine's Sword

Christianity has a strange relationship with power.

As it started, the movement that spread aggressively throughout the Greco-Roman world bore little resemblance to anything having to do with socio-political power.  Oh, sure, there are folks who argue it did, who'd suggest that Jesus was a political figure, a revolutionary.  There's not a whit of history, not a scrap of text or written tradition to back that up, but hey.  If it sells a million books and gets you on NPR, you're in like Flynn.  Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, Reza.

For the first few centuries of Christianity, it was radically nonviolent, so much so that as it spread it became a source of concern to those in power.  As more and more human beings engaged with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, they showed an increasing unwillingness to engage in the manly and noble virtue of hacking other human beings to death with sharp objects.  Love your enemies, said Jesus, and for some reason, people took him seriously.

Roman Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius fretted about this trend in his writings.  What are we supposed to do with these pathetic weakling Christians, who'd rather die with blessings on their lips than fight for the Empire?

When the Roman Empire fell, as empires always do, there were many Roman thinkers who blamed that fall on Christianity, which had so weakened the martial virtues of the Roman state that folks would rather welcome the Visigoths to the SaturnsDay church spaghetti dinner than stick a pilum into them.

But things were changing.  The process of that change began on a bridge, a bridge that represents a crossing over from Christianity as a radically nonviolent faith to Christianity as the awkward servant of social and political power.

That bridge is the Milvian bridge, which still stands in Rome today.  It's truly ancient, dating back to the year 206.  In the year 312, there was a battle on and around that bridge that changed the whole direction of Christian faith.  In the mess and struggle that was the declining Roman empire, two leaders were vying for power.  There was Maxentius, who had claimed power in Rome.  And there was Constantine, who was consolidating his power in the East of the empire.  As the story goes, Maxentius arrayed his forces to block access to the bridge.

On the far side of the bridge.  With the river Tiber behind them.  Leaving no easy retreat, and no way to regroup or alter position.  Maxentius is not exactly one of the great minds of military history.

Meanwhile, as Constantine was marching his army to the city, he announced he'd had a vision.  He'd seen the Greek letters Chi and Rho in the sky, with the Greek words En Touto Nika around them.  Those letters are the "CHR" in Christ, and that phrase means "In this sign, conquer."  And so--in perhaps the single most impressive misinterpretation of a vision in the history of Jesus--Constantine took this as meaning that this new god Jesus was going to wipe out all of his enemies.  That he'd noticed that Jesus was increasingly popular among his soon-to-be subjects, to the point that even his mom was a convert?  I'm sure that wasn't a factor.

He ordered his forces to put the Chi Rho symbol on their shields, and on October 28, 312, Constantine's army routed Maxentius, confidently butchering thousands upon thousands in the name of Jesus.  The river Tiber ran red with their blood.

Maxentius himself drowned in the Tiber trying to flee.  On a horse.  Wearing armor.  Again, Maxentius wasn't exactly the sharpest sword in the armory.

But Constantine managed to recover his corpse, chopped off the head, and then paraded through Rome with the bloody head on a pole.  I'm not sure how that works with the whole WWJD thing, but maybe Constantine hadn't looked at the bracelet in his new member's welcome pack yet.

Constantine soon after declared Christianity the Official Religion of the Roman Empire (tm), and Christian faith and political power were fused.  Conversion to Christianity became something done at the edge of a sword.  The radical, transforming, nonviolent ethic of love for enemy became an afterthought, to be "spiritualized" away or diluted or ignored.

Christendom--the fusion of Christianity and political power--had begun.