Saturday, July 28, 2018
The Seduction of the American Church
The Seduction of the American Church
The temptation of state power has endangered Christianity almost from the very beginning. Jesus, of course, was executed by the Roman authorities as a threat to the Pax Romana. And although Paul would solemnly warn the Jesus followers in Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), he would lose his head nonetheless. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, early Christians seemed eager to persuade the authorities that they were no threat to Roman hegemony. Some have argued that the book of Acts is a piece of apologetic intended to defend the early church and its leaders against charges of disloyalty and rabble rousing. Whenever there was a riot or conflict associated with the early Jesus followers Acts is eager to make sure that the blame is located with their opponents, not the Christians. By the time Revelation is composed the scene has changed. The Roman emperor is a beast “uttering haughty and blasphemous words” (Revelation 13:5). Chapter 17 depicts Rome as a gaudy whore riding a “scarlet beast”. Revelation 18 is a thinly veiled description of the destruction of Rome—here depicted as “Babylon the great.”
Over the following centuries Christians both wooed and cursed Rome. Persecutions flared up from time to time and there were martyrs aplenty—although not as many as some assume. But with the “conversion” of Constantine in the early fourth century, things began to change rapidly. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea is Constantine’s great cheerleader. His account of Constantine’s life and rule is fawning to the point of embarrassment. The emperor is “beloved of God”, “God’s emperor”, who “derives imperial authority form above.” The reason for this adulation is not difficult to discover. Very early on Constantine introduces legislation against heretics and schismatics. He deposes and exiles “heretical” bishops and prescribes heretical works. He wants to make sure that the Catholic Church is the only game in town. And in this he is cheered on by “orthodox” bishops and lay leaders.
This meant that bishops were now part of the apparatus of state. Some of them began to dress like Roman officials and live in palatial splendor. The church, sustained by the coercive force of the empire, became a powerful and, in many cases, a bloody institution. Critics of the church and its leaders could be silenced or eliminated. The long, bitter, persecution of the Jews began. They were driven into ghettos, forcibly baptized, prevented from entering the professions, and slaughtered in government sponsored pogroms. Heretics were imprisoned, exiled, and burned at the stake. All of this mayhem was sustained by state power, cheered on by the church, and motivated by a desire to produce uniformity and, yes, salvation. But in the process the message and intent of Jesus were obscured and distorted beyond recognition.
I could go on to examine the brutality of the Crusades, the bloody Reformation era with its slaughters, burnings, and disembowelings. These monstrous acts were committed by Protestants and Catholics alike in London, Paris, Rome and Geneva. This violence led to the disastrous thirty years war that ravaged Europe and brought discredit to the church. Suffice to say that from the first stirrings of religious oppression under Constantine to this day the wedding of Church and state has always been a disaster for the church--and yet the church has always seemed eager to get to the altar. This makes it not at all surprising that Christian Nationalists (for the most part right-wing Evangelicals) succumbed to the pandering of a cynical Donald Trump who offered them the potential of state power to enforce “Christian values” upon a recalcitrant American populous. But it issurprising that these same Nationalistic Christians have sought and found an ally in the former KGB murderer Vladimir Putin.
Throughout most of the 20thcentury Christians conservatives fulminated against godless Russia and warned about the seduction of the West by this colossus of the East. But with the fall of the Soviet Union Christian Nationalists saw a new opportunity. In a recent New York Times article (“What Was Maria Butina Doing at the National Prayer Breakfast”, July 18, 2018) Katherine Stewart describes the efforts of veteran Christian conservative organizer Paul Weyrich to forge relationships with religious conservatives in Russia and Eastern Europe. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage followed this up believing “there was a real push to reinstill Christian values in the [Russian] public square.” In 2016 a group of Nationalist Christians praised Vladimir Putin and the Orthodox Church as defenders of “Christian civilization”. One Christian Nationalist even called Putin a “lion of Christianity.”
And what was it that exercises these Christian nationalists so? Homosexuality. Franklin Graham praised Putin for protecting “his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” Graham and others, it seems, would love to see state power used against gay and lesbian and transgender Americans to return them to the margins of society and force them back into their various closets. They saw Donald Trump as a route to that coercive power. In seeking the power promised by Trump and Putin these Christian nationalists are grasping the tail of the proverbial tiger. As Timothy Snyder makes clear in his recent The Road to Unfreedom, Putin and other Russian nationalists see it as their destiny to rule the entirety of Europe. They see the European Union and the United States as barriers to their imperial goals. Their cultivation of right-wing Christian nationalists is utterly cynical. Russia sought the election of Donald Trump not because the Russians care about the Republican party’s agenda or, for that matter, the desire of Christian Nationalists to impose their will on American society. No. Putin wants to destabilize and weaken the western alliance and engender further chaos and division in the United States so that neither will be able to resist his imperial dreams. So far, his plan is working exceedingly well.
This concerns me. But my deepest concern is with the corruption of the Church. Christian nationalism is an oxymoron. As one of my former colleagues liked to say, when Christians say “we” we mean the church—not we Americans or we Russians. Not only is Christian Nationalism accelerating the unraveling of the Evangelical movement, it has put the church in bed with some of the most hateful, cynical, vicious and amoral people and forces in both the United States and Russia. And all this for the power to mistreat gay, lesbian and transgender people—and whoever else the Christian Nationalists decide needs correcting. This attempt to use coercive power is an abomination, has always been an abomination and has always left the church without faith, hope, and love. In the midst of his suffering God told Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:9). Paul in his powerlessness bore witness to God’s love all the way to the gallows. In Revelation, that great book of conflict with the state, the saints do not take up arms, nor do they try to seize power. Rather they bear witness and suffer martyrdom—their power, like Paul’s, is confirmed in weakness. Christian Nationalists like Graham, Falwell, Brown, and Pence have by seeking state power severely damaged the church of Jesus Christ in the United States. But by the “weakness” of love, generosity, compassion and hope, Jesus followers may remain strong and bear witness to the Good News of God’s reconciling love in spite of it all.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
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