AND HOW CONSTANTINE’S ENDORSEMENT OF CHRISTIANITY INSTITUTIONALIZED,
POLITICIZED, AND COMPLICATED THE STRAIGHTFORWARD TEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST
This essay explores how we as human beings can mystify and complicate even the most basic teachings of Jesus Christ. How we can build organizational structures and myths into our way of living that seem to be Christian in appearance and function. But are in reality a smoke screen to gain advantage over others, or justify actions taken to support greed and avarice.
Historical examples include the sale of indulgences to gain more power and income through making people believe such purchases will pardon their sins, thereby avoiding eternal punishment. Or supporting the practice of holy wars, exemplified by the Crusades conducted between 1096 and 1270 C.E. to eradicate a competing religion growing in the same land Christ lived and preached love and forgiveness.
C.S. Lewis, a participant in the Inklings and close friend of R. R. Tolkien, wrote a book titled The Screwtape Letters in 1942. In the middle of a raging World War II. The book was a creative invention, encouraged by his literary counterparts, to convey techniques Satan uses to confuse human beings through obfuscation and deception into behaving in ways pleasing to him. The letters are written to a fictitious Wormwood, Screwtape’s cousin, who encourages him to promote passivity and irresponsibility in human beings. The very responses the citizens of Germany, Italy and Japan had given their dictatorial leaders in allowing the most destructive war in history to kill tens of millions.
One might ask where God was when a church created in his name came up with an evil sleight of hand like indulgences, or formed armies to eradicate other human cultures that had the temerity to start an alternative religion that recognized the importance of Christ’s teachings in an alternative way.
Those were the kinds of questions Lewis and his fellow authors asked through their satirical analogies.
What Lewis, Tolkien and their fellow authors faced was a mammoth contributor to human existence in the guise of a Greco-Roman culture that dominated the western world for over a millennium. And its influence was and continues to be felt even today. A primary reason for that reality is one Roman emperor named Constantine.
From a purely historical point-of-view, one might conclude that Constantine’s adoption of Christianity while emperor of Rome was a mixed blessing. Rome, the empire and nation state, was exceptionally good at cultural absorption. Territories and other nations conquered by Rome were slowly assimilated to the point of almost full amalgamation over time.
It was an ingenious strategy, which resulted in governmental oversight and a rationale that created ongoing stability and culturalization.
Most remarkable is that such culturalization could balance two very different ways of thinking and acting as being mutually supportive, when in fact they were almost polar opposites. Case in point: the humble Galilean carpenter and son of God who was crucified as a criminal of the state, pictured alongside the stupendously regal Roman pontiff or patriarch of Rome. A patriarchal status that at one time was accorded the equivalency of being God on earth.
That juxtaposition works because popes are advertised as being descendants of Saint Peter, with the linkage to Christ confirmed by the Apostle Matthew: And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18) KJV.
Secular critics find ways to shoot holes through that depiction, saying that Constantine found a way to perpetuate the power of Rome for generations in the future. By making the Christian religion the vehicle for eternally maintaining the Roman culture. And the beauty of that strategy is church dogma and bureaucratic mechanisms can seem to transcend political motivations, because they are given the gravitas connected to a faith.
Constantine had no way of knowing there would be a Reformation or Enlightenment a few hundred years in the future, and the Islamic culture and other belief systems were only starting during his era. But the new institutionalized faith he supported with Roman governmental structures and processes did provide a way through the Dark Ages. Through many epidemics like the Black Plague, multiple wars, and the hundreds of years Europeans colonized many parts of the earth.
Today Protestantism, and other church movements that claim to be Christian, feature ideas and processes Constantine would immediately recognize and appreciate. One of the key features of many Christian churches today is the dominance of masculine prerogatives and leadership, resulting in the submissive demeanor of women and many men. Leadership is equated with authoritarian rule, or at the very least a doctrinally imposed adherence to behaviors deemed appropriate and correct by those in charge.
Constantine would also recognize the strength of centralized authority in government and economic activities, touted as being important for the stability and ongoing maintenance of social order. And that social order relies on classifying people in terms of economic value, intellectual worthiness, and social contributions. Depending on what Christ said as recorded by Matthew: For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. Matthew 26:11 KJV.
History can set up maddingly complex “what if” scenarios by asking questions like “What if there had not been a Saint Paul and his tireless efforts to expand the church of Christ? What if Constantine had continued to persecute Christians like his predecessors instead of co-opting their beliefs and making them Rome’s state religion? What if the Christian Church of Rome had emphasized its charitable services underscored by the teachings of Christ instead of seeking political and economic dominance, and graciously opened its doors to the ideas provided in the Enlightenment? And found ways to compromise with Martin Luther and others leading the Christian Renaissance?
But those scenarios did not emerge. Leaving us with many critics of Christianity as it functions in the world today. Critics who feel free to tell us that religion has been the greatest perpetrator of war, and the grueling poverty and deprivation of the world’s peoples. That is not true by any stretch of the imagination, but it is difficult to ignore the detritus of established Christian organizations that got it wrong. Or those that did not try because they were too timid to use the admonitions of Christ to actively overcome injustices. A timidity based on the idea that Jesus was less activist in terms of social justice, preferring to quietly change hearts and minds over time.
The problem with that notion is that letting himself be sacrificed on the cross is more than dying for our sins. It is a statement and agonizing sacrifice based on courage and conviction, reinforced by coming back from the dead to inspire change in the human condition. To me, Jesus was God’s maverick who saw social injustices everywhere and tried to do something about them, using the only tools he had available.
The most effective of those tools was—and is—the power of empathy.
Empathy is an ability to feel what others feel, deep down and impactful. A monumental “aha” moment that won’t go away. It continually revisits us cognitively and emotionally. To the point of making us feel unsettled. Of making us believe we might have the conviction and strength to do something—maybe many “somethings” —about it.
That is what Jesus did. Openly and sensitively. Shoring up and healing. Listening carefully and helping those who hurt or were downhearted. Washing feet and hugging. Guiding and assisting those who stumble.
Jesus was God’s man. Not an amalgam of Roman masculinity that exuded power and decisiveness based on an overdeveloped sense of righteousness and authority. Not a replication of Moses or other leaders of a bygone era who asserted dominance because they felt compelled to do so in God’s name. Jesus realized that true leadership is nurturance based on understanding, building up instead of pontificating from on high, and accepting all with open arms Including everyone. Continually acknowledging their worthiness as children of God.