When The Kingdom Came? Jesus, Constantine and American Identity Politics
During the past 2 years America has seen a steady rise in messianic talk around our political candidates. This is especially true when discussing the Conservative Evangelical voting block. Their most identifiable hope is that they find God’s choice to establish a “Christian nation under God”. Interestingly enough this candidate always turns out to be the Republican who wins the nomination. On the opposite side of our two party system we find equal opposition to establishing this “Christian America”. This leads to a lot of people pointing towards Rome and using empire language to why religion should stay out of politics. We want progress from a more humanist point of view so this side runs to the Democrat. From the outside looking in both sides seem to have a wrong view of scripture and a misreading of world history. My hope is that we can see how Jesus is not a political identity and that St. Constantine the Great wasn’t so bad after all.
During the 2016 Presidential election I became fascinated with church history. Many of my progressive counterparts would talk about how we saw what a Christian nation looked like and it failed and they pointed to Constantine. I do have to admit that I do not believe in the myth of a Christian nation but, Constantine wasn’t getting a fair shake. For those of you who don’t know, Constantine was the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. He rose to power in the early 300’s AD and became the sole emperor of the eastern and western Roman empire in 324 AD. Legend says that he had a dream before a battle and was told to paint Christian symbols on his soldiers shields. He did this and was victorious in battle and started to fully engage in the relatively new Christian religion. This was a pivotal point in history because Christians at this time were less than favored across the empire. What does an empire do with a rising political figure who adopts a persecuted religion?
It was customary in Roman paganism to throw a pinch on incense into the flames to honor the Emperor. Christians refused to do this calling it idol worship saying they only worship the one true God. Paganism was the official religion of Rome and it was honored out of duty and not faith. Christianity is based on faith and not duty which often lead to situations that put its adherents at odds with the empire. When Constantine took the throne he no longer required that anyone give offering to a God they didn’t feel worthy. In doing this he removed the taboo that was Christian worship. Constantine also elevated once persecuted priests into the higher places of government. A lowly people now had a say. One of the most remarkable things that came of all of this was that Paganism was not outlawed. People could still worship in their tradition as they pleased so long as they didn’t force others to do the same. Constantine if anything took an oppressed people from a lowly status and brought them to an equal footing. This is social justice at its finest.
Where people get confused is when they attribute what happens after Constantine to the man himself. His successors took his good legislation of equal status and elevated Christianity above the others. This lead to the state persecuting pagans and multiple calls from the Bishops of the church to stop. At one point St. Ambrose refused to administer the Eucharist to the Roman emperor because even though paganism was now frowned upon, people shouldn’t be slaughtered. History shows us that Rome’s politics became identity based and was no longer pursuing progressive legislation. When Christendom became about the empire’s business it was now slave to two masters.
American “progressive” political commentators can be affirmed that a single religion government is easily corrupt. Where they go wrong is that instead of listening to their opponents and engaging in helpful diologue they also do what Rome did. After Constantine there was a caesar named Julian. He was lovingly called “Julian the Apostate” since he re-instituted paganism as the state religion of Rome. This was in response to the now overtly favored Christianity held by the masses in the empire. He swung the pendulum the other way by playing the foil in his own game of identity politics. When you see how he reinstituted laws that oppressed the Christians it’s no wonder they retaliated when they were restored to power. Eventually, Christianity won out and Byzantium was born until the fall of the empire itself.
What can we learn from these Romans? How can their experience with Christianity and politics help us to see a better way?
One of the difficult parts of identity politics is that identities change. As a result of these identity shifts, we also switch our scapegoats. Pagans scapegoated the Christians until it was no longer favorable then it swapped. Christians returned the favor and though it eventually settled there was blood shed for little gain. We have been doing this here in America for a little while now. Since we founded as a nation based on small pockets of Protestant ideals Christianity has held its privilege. Now that we are a few hundred years into our nation’s history we are seeing a cultural shift. People are not going to church in the numbers that they were. Things that are seen as culturally acceptable are changing. Our Neo-Pagan identity is starting to show and our diversity is blooming. Equality is on everyone’s lips. This is posing a problem for some.
Christianity is losing its grip on our society and the response from the church has been less than loving. Even our oppressed brothers and sisters of color are seen as outsiders trying to take America from God’s hands. We are trying to close our boarders off to people who were born of a different son of father Abraham. Whether or not we belong in Christ or not is based on how we vote on a ballet every 4 years. We say “God hates fags” and “Turn or burn”. Our flag waves in the wind of blowhard politicians and pastors who tell us God’s choice is leading us towards freedom. Likewise, those who feel silenced are demanding to be heard and are turning from the Jesus the “so called Christians” follow. Many are asking how Jesus could allow this non-sense to continue and place the balme of this “Christian nation” on him.
This is not Jesus’ Christian nation.
Jesus welcomes the refugee, the traveler and the unheard. His kingdom is not one that can be corrupted by the world. His incorruptible body found at the table of the Eucharist is the centerpiece of life. His kingdom is one of peace and is abundant in love and mercy. Jesus is not a war hawk. Jesus is also not a pacifist. He is beyond all of that so much so that the things we cannot reconcile in ourselves he has the capacity to do so. Jesus is the messiah, the holy lamb of God, the one who comes in humility and understanding. He does not boast about his riches or waiver on his policy. His policy is one of love and there is no law against that. We can definitely take our time to argue the points that matter but at the end of the day we keep the pendulum swinging. We are modern day Romans demanding control of the empire. Our greatest hope is to step out of the swing and enter into the politics of the kingdom of God.
Remember this during the next political cycle: Jesus came not boasting of who he is but humbled himself to serve the least of these. There is no empire that can compare to the Kingdom of God and that the only Christian nation that exists is not found in this world.