Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Chapter Three: Christendom, AmeriChrist, and the Church

As it started, the Jesus 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.  
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.
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 thrived 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.
Without the sword of the state to force people to experience the love of Jesus--or at least give unbelievers a real and tangible sense of his suffering--the church as an organization faces a conundrum.
How to get people in the doors?  I mean, here Jesus asked us to bring everybody to him, and suddenly they're free to wander off and do as they please.
And we aren't allowed to kill them, not even a little bit.
We could try being relentlessly gracious, merciful, and kind.  We could try caring for the poor, turning ourselves fully to the needs of the hungry and the oppressed.  We could let the power of the Gospel suffuse our souls, changing us into beings who live only for the reconciliation of the world, and whose every word is grace and welcome, to friend and stranger and enemy alike.  We could show the world our flawed but beautiful struggle to live according to a more excellent way.
But that would be haaaaAARD.  Don't make us do that, Jesus.
So we look around for other options. Surely there must be other options.
Around us, our consumer culture shines and sparkles.  It is the market, but not as Jesus would have recognized it.  This is not the agora of the Greco-Roman world, or the small town equivalent.  The little storefronts that once made a modest living for families are withering away, replaced by big boxes with big parking lots, which themselves are fading as the internet box grows bigger and bigger until we're always in a store, all the time.
The values of the marketplace and the ethics of business are ascendant, defining every aspect of our existence.  We celebrate wealth and success.  Our communications with each other are an endless fountain of products, services, and self-promotion.  It is everything we see, and everywhere we are.  Before our eyes are cast images of unattainable perfection, for which we are told to hunger.  When we cannot replicate that unattainable life, we are extended a line of credit at twenty-three and a quarter percent.  When we find ourselves falling apart from the strain of striving for what--by design--cannot ever be attained, we are offered drugs to make the stress and the anxiety go away.
Globalized business straddles national borders, extending itself beyond the reach of any one nation-state's legal jurisdiction or currency.  Disembodied corporate persons that transcend national boundaries drive public policy, and define the way we think about ourselves and our world.  The ethos of profit and growth and organizational expansion defines what is excellent, and tells us what is good.
And just as the church allowed itself to be co-opted by culture in the age of Empire, so it now embraces the new power of consumer culture.
It's all in the name of Jesus, of course.  And it works!  Lord, but does it work.  Brings 'em in like gangbusters, hungry for the elusive blessings of material success and anxious about their uncertain place in a market red in tooth and claw.  It works as well as the edge of Constantine's sword ever did.
As John Wimberly puts it in The Business of the Church,
“..the Christian church is the original, largest, and wealthiest multinational corporation in the world.  Almost two thousand years before Citibank, GE, or Microsoft, the church began to accumulate assets and personnel.  By the sixteenth century, the Medicis of Florence had become Europe’s richest family by managing the Vatican’s money.  Today, the Christian church owns hundreds of millions of acres and hectares of property, including prime real estate sites in the centers of the world’s richest cities.  The church has a cash flow of billions of dollars annually.  It has millions of employees.  Indeed, it would take a great deal of research to find a country or region where the multinational corporation called the church does not have a local branch operation.”
Christendom is dead.  Long live AmeriChrist, Inc.
Yeah, I know.  That's a tich hyperbolic.  Just a little.
But the value set of our marketized culture has unquestionably worked its way into our expectations for how Jesus folk in America understand and share Christian faith.
It shapes our expectations of the leadership in our congregations.  It forms and shapes how we view community, both as we seek a place to encounter God and as we live out our faith within those communities.
And all of this shapes how we understand God, and our relationship to one another.
We’re fiercely interested in profit and growth, in expanding our influence and the influence of the specific community that we serve.  We use the tools and implements of business development, and the concepts underlying marketing and advertising.  It impacts our gatherings, and impacts the perceived role of those called to lead our communities.
Because in this market-driven, growth-obsessed culture, there are pastors, and there are Pastors.
Leadership in the church in America tends to take two very distinct forms.  One, we don't see, in the same way we don't see the air around us.  The other is the only thing we see, because it's so very bright and shiny.
What we don't see is the general reality.
Most congregational leadership exists in the modestly sized communities that comprise the vast majority of American churches.  The median church in the United States has a total of 75 regular participants.  These are the neighborhood churches, the town churches, the storefronts, and the gatherings that come together in schools and whatever space they can cobble together.
Within these churches, life revolves around community.  It's small, it's quiet, and faith has an intimate quality.  These little congregations aren't necessarily perfect.  Like human beings, some are sweet and beautiful, some are flawed, some are as mean as a rattlesnake.  But when you're talking about where most pastors reside, you're talking the small church.
That means most pastors don't really make much of a living at it.  They tend to be either poor, part-time, or otherwise employed.  If they're full time, they're lucky to live like waitresses or librarians, warehouse workers or cops.  It is humble work.  But if you're called to it, you don't much care.
They pour their heart and soul into their communities.  Some are great, and some, well, not so much.  But they are the norm.  They are the fat part of that pastoral bell curve.  When we think of what it means to teach and preach and care for a community, this is where most folks are.
AmeriChrist does not show us these people.  It does not wish us to understand the life and purpose of a typical pastor through their journey.
Instead, AmeriChrist, Inc. shows us the shiny ones, the one-percenters.  These megachurch pastors aren't representative of the reality of pastoring, any more than the CEO of Monsanto is representative the reality of farming.
Instead, they are those who have succeeded by every standard our society has established.  Within our culturally mediated expectations of what it means to be excellent, they define what it is to be the best, to be the thing to which every person should aspire.
They have grown a church, or taken over a growing church.  That church has gotten huge.  Big.  Vast.  Books have been published, and then pitched.  There is a campus, and a media empire.  It is bright and glorious and remarkably lucrative.  This is what we are asked to aspire to.  It becomes our norm. In AmeriChrist, Inc., where the values of the marketplace define what a pastor is and does, pastoral leadership has several key features, features that track along an arc that leads to that shiny place.
And if we’re not in that shiny place?  If we’re not that powerful, influential, large-haired big parking lot church pastor?  Then we have failed.  If we’re in lay leadership or attending a smaller church, one where the programs are not shiny and sparkly and professionally presented?  Then we are somehow inferior.
That, more than anything else, is the operating assumption of the growth ethic of the marketized church.  It is an assumption that guarantees that most congregations will feel radically anxious about their identity and about their value.  It is an assumption that doubly impacts those called to lead and teach the church, as market-driven values lead pastors to view themselves in ways that are radically and fundamentally unbiblical.
If we assume that the skillsets required to run these market-metric organizations are the same as those that form and shape real life-giving Christ-centered relationships, we’re deluding ourselves.  Elizabeth O’Connor, one of the founding members of Church of the Saviour, put it best when she said:
We have discovered over the years that even the people who know how to administer churches, banks, corporations, and hospital units have no idea how to nurture a small group so that its members deepen their lives in Christ--learn self knowledge, how to listen and to care--the deep nurture of the spiritual life so essential for the recovery of vision and passion.
And yet we roar ahead, convinced that bigger is better, and corporate is the goal.  In the next chapter, we’ll explore what that looks like, as we visit a giant, corporately structured congregation.


LINK TO CHAPTER FOUR

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

  1. “Christendom,” that fusion of Christianity with political power, was a significant driver of the spread of the faith in the first two millennia of the church.  This expansion was often reinforced at the point of the sword.  Does that awkward union delegitimize the faith in any way?  Can it be legitimate in any way?
  2. This chapter argues that there cannot ever be a Christian nation.  Do you agree or disagree with this assertion?  Why or why not?
  3. One of the core theses of this chapter is that wealth and the power of wealth can be just as coercive and poorly matched with Christian values as the power of physical coercion.  Do you agree or disagree?  Why?
  4. John Wimberly...a great guy, and a thoughtful scholar of churches as organizations...suggests that the church can be thought of as a huge multinational corporation.  How do you respond to that suggestion?
  5. This chapter introduces the idea of American Christianity as “AmeriChrist, Inc.,” where the expectations of big business have come to define cultural expectations of Christian life.  Does this seem valid?  Why or why not?

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