(Photo credit – One Mile at a Time)
How can the Christian world ever shed the broken model of the Imperial Church? For 1700 years the siren-song of worldly power has lured prelates and zealots to the Circean Shore (see Homer’s Odyssey if you’re not sure what that is) of using the power of the sword and state to drag the unwilling into a phantom of the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace.
It started with the Roman Caesars’ call to the pre-Schism Catholic clergy to bolster the Roman state in return for building it cathedrals and episcopal palaces, and granting extensive lands and benefactions. After Rome fell, the various new kings discovered they also desperately needed the Church’s ministrations to help them rule and organize their fractious realms.
In the high Middle Ages Pope Innocent III (of ultra-ironic name and fame) claimed that the “Vicar of Christ on Earth” (a.k.a., himself, the Pope) had the power to anoint, even appoint, and dethrone monarchs of all ranks of power. Popes called on princes to bring fire, sword and anathemas down upon Muslims and infidels of all sorts. They authorized Inquisitors to flush out, hunt down, and eliminate dissidents, heretics, witches (sic.), and rogues of every description to force them to recant (under terrible torture) and all too often be consigned to the flames even after repenting as an example to any who might dare to question the anointed guardians of the Sacred Mysteries. Sometimes even the greatest saints stood on the brink of condemnation. Too often they ended up bitterly disillusioned with the co-opting of their message and example to be channeled back into paths more readily manipulated by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy and office-holders.
During the Reformation, Master Reformers like Luther kept the old lie alive as they called on the princes to wipe out Anabaptists like wild dogs, root out and crush Jews as Christ-killers, and bring the wrath of God down upon the Harlot Papists.
We will leave that tormented (and far from complete) record there.
The great illusion is that somehow the old imperialist ways can be married to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace as “Christendom” and produce the Kingdom of God. In the New Testament that Kingdom is described as “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”, the “peaceable Kingdom” where justice and mercy kiss each other and oppression and violence are banished for ever. The early Christian witness to their persecutors was “see how they love one another” not how they condemn and slaughter one another, let alone the unbelieving pagan masses.
Still, the light of hope has never departed. Messiah has ever found little lights to fan into flame with new hope and to fulfill the call to go out into all the world and heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, teach and lift up the downtrodden, and defend the defenseless – even if it means going to die with them as Christ died with the criminals on his right and left hands and suffered the penalty of death for all who are alienated from their Maker. Most of Christ’s light-bearers and truest witnesses are anonymous and unknown, even today, and as they ever have been. Some come to wider notice and stand out so starkly that even the most brilliant high-flyers and loftiest and power-robe bedecked Church-leaders are made to see their own arrogant bankruptcy. These humble ones no one can ignore come like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa. Most have gladly died unrecognized. Many have been women, ignored and erased from notice by men who declared them out of place and outside God’s proper order.
An imperialist church seems primarily to be a Western phenomenon. African Christians, as those in the Arab world, and those in hostile places like the People’s Republic of China, have never known this phenomenon of the church openly partnering in the molding of society alongside government in order to gain and hold onto the reins of power. It is in the West, and perhaps now especially in the USA, that the allure of holding the levers of power for Christians still lingers.
In the West the general populace also most resists the claims of Christians to speak truth about the Creator and His desire to bring the Good News of peace and goodwill to all humanity regardless of gender, colour, language, tradition, and socio-political class. For it is from the once “Christian” West that the most terrible offences against these very benchmarks in the quest of equality and equity have issued, or so it is commonly claimed and widely believed.
The paradox is that it is also from the much-maligned former leading nations of “Christendom” that all the greatest steps in progress towards actually achieving meaningful advances in these very things have issued. It is from these same nations that the forward movement in snapping the chains of oppression against women, racialized oppressed peoples, and downtrodden impoverished classes has come. It is from the West that modern medicine and science have emerged to alleviate so much suffering.
The Capitalist West did not invent oppression and slavery and exploiting the poor. Crushing peasants, serfs, and labourers and keeping them in their “assigned places” has been universal to almost every culture in recorded history. Slavery in its many guises has been found in every society ever discovered, from primitive to most civilized. The impetus to actually end it has flowed almost exclusively from the Christian heritage of the West.
Rather than recoiling from hopelessness at the retreat of its influence (as Western Christians tend to lament), the Church (as the united community of followers of Jesus) needs to rejoice in its apparent powerlessness and impoverishment. We need to wholeheartedly renounce all the old imperialist ways and to take up the enormous challenges of doing the things that our Founder and Master called us to do from the very beginning.
Let us take to heart that taking up the sword leads only to dying by the sword; seeking power by the “world’s” (the usual broken human methods) means only leads to corruption and destruction because they violate the Master’s criteria of successfully advancing His Kingdom. To be great in His Kingdom is primarily “being the servants of all” and shaming the captors and oppressors by standing up to them and showing what real freedom looks like, unshackled by the delusions of grandeur based on showy exhibitions of glitzy one-upmanship based on money and position in the socio-political hierarchy.
It is the deep paradox of simplicity defying complexity. Yet if is so deep it defies the nimblest scientific and economic calculations.
As we conclude this extended meditation, let us return briefly to the enigma of Revelation, that last trumpet-blast of the Bible. The picture it ends with is of the New Jerusalem in the New Heavens and New Earth, the renewed and redeemed Kingdom of God brought in by the triumphant return of Yeshua Messiah – Jesus Christ. In that book He appears as both the Slain Lamb who redeemed the world and the Lion of Judah who will judge all the nations, setting right all wrongs and ending all sin and rebellion against the Creator.
Some find the book too gory and bloody to accept as a legitimate picture of the Loving God’s final word. Yet our culture’s narrative does not quibble about a tremendously violent beginning called the Big Bang. “Yes, but no one was alive to die yet,” they reply. And that is true as far as it goes. But what ensued – billions of years of evolution with death upon death upon death until now – untold quantities of death so that we might live. “Yes, but that’s just Nature’s way (with nature as a personified stand-in for God). It’s completely impersonal and without malice.” But somehow it gives all the appearance of intentionality and has led to personality and individuality.
The paradox is that if it is all random and apparently impersonal (yet somehow intentional), it is OK. But if there is a Creator who made things happen and gave us life, the whole thing is unjust and wicked. Especially because, according to that narrative, the Creator dares to pronounce that some of His/Her creatures can and will live forever because they have accepted an offer to reconcile with Him/Her and join His/Her family.
On the one side, everything will cease to exist, forever, and everyone who has ever lived and will live dies and stays dead forever – but that is not evil because it is mere impersonal (?) Nature, although it appears personal and individual everywhere you look…
The alternative narrative says a Personal Creator has left His/Her signature everywhere and on everything and in everyone. He/She offers eternal life to anyone who chooses to accept it by coming into relationship with Him/Her through His/Her chosen representative Redeemer. But since masses of people want no part of Him/Her and that offer, He/She is unloving and wicked for not adopting them all and saving them all anyway, dragging them into something they reject and abhor with no respect for their personal right to choose their own destiny. So in the case God is condemned for not being a tyrant and oppressor and not respecting your rights. Sounds like having your cake and eating too… In philosophical terms for the logical hair-splitters out there, this is a basic logical fallacy, a tautology along the “Gotcha both ways and either way, buddy!”
The message of Revelation is that we have a choice to come into reconciliation with the Creator; that the way of power, riches, exploitation, abuse and all that have no place or role or position in the Creator’s order. They are human contrivances that enslave us to dark powers personified as things like the Great Dragon and a lot of smaller versions of the Dragon.
In the end, all these things will be wiped out by the Creator.
In the meantime, we have a choice to take the old Imperial Highway – like the ancient “King’s Highway” that ran from Egypt to Mesopotamia and like the remorseless Roman roads built primarily to facilitate the expeditious passage of Rome’s irresistible juggernaut from one end of its dominion to the other. Or we have the choice to take the King of Heaven’s highway down through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (death to all the delusions and illusions the other road offers) and out and up into the brilliant light of the Resurrection City of the Creator’s full purpose for us and all His/Her creation.