Friday, March 14, 2014

The End of the Sword

For a millennia and a half, the message of Jesus rode on the dark wings of empire.

It was the age of Christendom. The state and the church were one.

That the message of Jesus was a poor match for the aspirations of power meant little.  If you veiled the teachings of Jesus behind church authority and wrapped them up in nationalistic or racist ideology, you could turn them completely on their head.  

Keeping folks illiterate helped, and a little selective reading/editing didn't hurt, either.  "Live by the sword," as Jesus himself said.

This made for a whole bunch more Christians.

"Are you a Christian," asks the man with the gun.  "Sure," you say, looking into the frightened eyes of your wife and children.  "Are you the right sort of Christian," he then asks.  "Whatever that is, I am," you say, because you love your children.

"Do you repent and believe in the Church and all of Her Teachings," says the Inquisitor, hot iron in hand.  "Oh absolutely," you say, because you want the pain to stop.  You'd believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all His Noodly Appendages if the pain would stop.

"I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," says the priest, casting water on your whip-scarred back as you stumble from the slave ship.  You don't answer, because he's speaking Latin, not Yoruba, and you have no idea what he's saying.  

Welcome to Christendom!  

Underneath that dark flourishing, though, the essence of the message stuck around.  Here and there, it would thrive in monastic communities or in gatherings of believers.  Wherever human beings actually attended to the essence of the Gospel, it changed lives for the better.  It became a reason to show mercy to the enemy, and kindness to the stranger.  If you bothered looking at it for yourself, it seemed to subvert the very power that spread it.  Just be careful about telling anyone that you've noticed, because bad things happened when people spoke up.

That was a painful part of who we were, for nearly 1,500 years.  In some places, it is still the way things are.

But here in America, Christendom is dead.  Oh, the body is still warm, and twitches a bit now and again, but it's a dead thing.  Honestly?  That's a cause for celebration.

You wouldn't know that from some of the yearnings of certain corners of Christianity.  When they see the state's power no longer propping up the faith, they see danger.  We're a Christian nation, they cry! 

These are the folks that assume that the American journey is the same thing as the story of the Gospel.  In that, they embrace Christendom, the fusion of power and faith.  They're like the folks who assumed that the British narrative was the sacred narrative, or the Belgian, or the German, or the Russian.  We are God's People!  Gott Mitt Uns!  It's Manifest Destiny, baby!  If you're planning on subjugating the heathen, forcing them to abandon their ways, and taking control of their very productive and mineral rich land, it helps to believe this.

I'm not so sure how Canadians feel on this front, but if they do think they're God's people, they're probably just too polite to mention it.

While the orders and structures of our society are a blessing, it's important not to fool yourself into believing that a nation can be Christian.  It can't.  Not ever.  In that, Christendom was always a lie.

Why?

Ask yourself: what is a nation?  A nation is a people, a society, bounded and knit together first by geography, but more significantly by laws.  These legal structures provide the common ground upon which the collective life of a people are founded.  They establish justice and balance between the competing interests that arise when human beings share space together.  That legal order can be used to oppress and serve the powerful.  But it can also--as the United States Constitution mostly does--provide an equitable foundation for our life together.

Some faith traditions blend the two.  In Torah, Judaism has just such a set of laws, established to govern both the religious and the jurisprudential life of a Jewish nation.  In Sharia, Islam has another set of laws, which do the same thing.

Jesus didn't give us that.  We get no carefully ordered system of governance from the Nazarene.  He told us stories instead.  He did not lay out the regulations for running an orderly society, in a tidy little manual with headings and subheadings.  He only gave us One Law, one intended not for ruling, but for the transformation and liberation of human beings no matter what the political system they inhabit.

As Christianity in the United States and elsewhere has pulled away from the use of coercive power to enforce itself, it's been powerfully and significantly freeing.  That's the whole point of the separation of church and state.  That little stricture, so frustrating to those who just for the integrity of a constitutional republic.  It significantly serves the integrity of faith itself.

Because a coerced faith is not a real faith.  When we use force to compel others to believe as we believe, when we rely on the power of the state to enforce our beliefs, then we are no longer Christian.  Good news can never be shared at the end of a sword.  We serve another power.

So this transition, honestly, has been a good thing for Christians.  It frees our faith to stand--or fall-- legitimately on its own.  Without arm-twisting and fear in the tool box, we can get back to our purpose.  Yay us!  Go Jesus!

But there are other forms of power.

2 comments:

  1. In fairness, most early converts during the Roman period were attracted to the ethical side of our faith, and the willingness to take care of the sick, widows & orphans allowed for a slightly higher "natural increase" for Christian communities amid disasters like war and famine. It wasn't all done at the point of a sword.

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  2. That's quite true, Ralph. And the radical, intentional nonviolence of the earliest converts also made a significant impression, particular as it contrasted with the really pretty impressively brutal character of the ancient world.

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