When I first picked up Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected by Wes Howard-Brook, I found myself sharing its insights immediately. I would walk into the next room and just start in: “Did you know?” I peppered my Thursday Eucharists with reflections and Facebook with random quotes. It was the physical proof of what was truly engaging my heart.
I loved reading about the challenge of a Christianity built in the midst of Empire and fundamentally compelled to endorse Empire, even as Jesus and his earliest followers condemned it.
But just as the fruit of the freshness of this insight was found in my sharing, it’s challenge was also manifest unconsciously in my anxiety toward reading it. I struggled to get myself to pick up the book some days or to read more than 5 pages in a sitting.
To avoid the book, I made excuses about the denseness of the writing or yet another exploration of an early church figure. As if I don’t like reading weighty or academic work. This apprehension confounded me. I loved every word and was eager to share it.
The contradiction wasn’t reasonable. Which is sort of the point, isn’t it? It isn’t rational. It’s subconscious.
Born in the heart of empire with ambitions of opening the doors of the faith wide, the early Christians had to face both their own cultural appropriation and several bouts of oppression. So going along to get along was always likely.
And certainly this empire/Christianity connection didn’t drop from the sky in the 4th Century or come like a thunderbolt with Constantine’s conversion. It came many years before that.
Christianity was always going to be empire’s stalking horse.
As much as my brain and heart finally found vindication in knowing the challenge of empire’s link with Christianity goes well beyond Constantine, this great joy was tempered with the enormity of the challenge in front of us. And of course the still present power of empire.
Feeling Stuck With Empire
This tension reminded me of a series of lectures Luke Timothy Johnson gave the Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of Atlanta some years ago. The premise was that Christianity as a religion was formed as a mixture of Hebrew and Greek. It was as much a product of Paul as it was Jesus. Therefore, because the Greek influence could not be isolated from the Hebrew, we should embrace both parts as essential.
While I embraced his thesis, I rejected his conclusion. Bodily. I remember having a visceral response at the time. It sounded to me something like this:
Like Being Stuck With Two Parents And One Future
Imagine you have a mother who grew up making things work. When her parents couldn’t make dinner, she would feed her brothers and sisters. When she became a single mother, she found a way to put food on the table. She taught us lessons about life and God which are eternal.
Imagine you also have a father who was a bank robber. He grew up in a crime family and lived a terrible life. When he married your mom, he continued to rob banks. Your mom didn’t like it, but it helped keep food on the table. Even after you were born, Dad would go rob banks, sometimes go to jail, often get shot at, but he’d come home with a fist full of cash.
Of course he’d hit you and your Mom, which made you pissed at him. But he was a pretty good Dad otherwise. Love’s complicated like that.
Now imagine, instead of being allowed to see this complicated relationship of growing up with two vastly different families, and the deeply destructive environment of your early years, you are told that we ought to justify the bad and good both.
But it isn’t just “it is what it is.” It goes beyond that. It’s like an endorsement of both and a rejection of the idea that you could build a life as anything but a blending of the two. As if he were encouraging us to take up bank robbery today because its some kind of family tradition.
Bad Advice About Dad
I rejected this theory from the moment I heard it because it sounded pessimistic, hopeless, and irrational. It sounded fundamentally wrong, like the totally backwards way of looking at it.
This advice sounded to my ears like not treating a cancer in the family because it’s part of the family. Like, “take care not to hurt the cancer!”
Accepting that it was a part of our past doesn’t mean we are destined to endorse its ongoing presence. And it certainly doesn’t mean we should refrain from finding a faith more in line with what Jesus taught than what pro-empire Christians two centuries later taught.
We aren’t stuck with a bad faith any more than we’re stuck with bad relationships.
Roman Power, Roman Order
Howard-Brook shows how much Roman influence shaped Christianity from the 2nd to 5th Centuries. It brought a profound transition from a diverse family of the faithful to a more unified, ordered, and hierarchical church. At great cost.
The church and Rome were bound to hook up. They’d been flirting for ever.
And the church, for its part, wanted to get with Rome. Maybe it was afraid of dying or it wanted access to the empire’s influence. It really doesn’t matter. It’s probably both. Because today we’re just as frightened by a lack of authority as we are by the centralizing and expanding of authority.
Rome loved order.
And so did those early bishops in the 2nd and 3rd Century who were facing political division. It all makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course Roman concern for order and predictability are an easy appeal. Order and consolidation of power.
So we focus our attention on that relationship between the church and order. We know they wanted it because we struggle with it now.
But when we focus on that, we forget how foreign Rome was to much of the world. Between the rural countryside and the newly conquered territories, these Roman obsessions with order and power were not the norm.
The first followers of Jesus brought a faith very appealing in its local and communal character, not in its certainty and uniformity. Battles for order and influence were fundamental to the different experiences of the people.
We Tell Our History Through Roman Eyes
And yet we tell our history almost exclusively through Rome’s eyes. Rome made everything about them or not-them. So everything was Roman or Not-roman, Greek or Pagan.
But the early church was composed of a multiplicity of voices thanks to a great diversity of locations and cultures. It was regional. Urban and rural. European, Middle Eastern, and North African. It was made of learned scholars, the uneducated, city-dwellers, and country folk.
The diversity in the faith could be tolerated only as long as it could be controlled, defined, and organized by Rome.
When looking back, we fail to see how early divisions were regional and matters of interpretation. And more importantly, we struggle to see how the very call for unity was imposed on the people. Rome defined the terms and goal of the debate. And it was Rome who wanted the church to develop a singular statement of belief.
We’ve whitewashed our history to make the Nicene Creed an agreement and a necessity. We dubbed the murderous violence in the building of catholic Christianity inevitable. And we’ve declared the oppressive pursuit of forced unity was all God-led.
And yet all of these pursuits for unity, to name its contours and craft a creed, were founded without unity. They didn’t draw us together, nor were they based in Jesus’s teaching. It was all theory about Jesus and about order. But what he cares about are almost entirely absent from the history or it’s creedal results.
Rarely have we evoked the cost of order.
Howard-Brook ends his book with Augustine. And really, how could he not? The birth of catholic Christianity ultimately finds its permanent voice in Augustine. He was the man of his hour. And he could just as easily be the man for our own.
Perhaps no-one not named Paul has formed the Christian faith we know like Augustine. The specter of Augustine’s supremacy looms beyond the teachings still articulated and used today. For in an age of extremes and diversity, Augustine preached unity through moderation.
Augustine, the radical moderate
For his time, Augustine was quite moderate. But like many moderates throughout history, Augustine’s moderation was radical in practice.
Even though Augustine found a seemingly moderate position between extremes, that doesn’t mean it put him firmly on Christian soil. Augustine was strongly against violence. And yet he made loopholes which encourage violence. Opportunities which named violence not only just, but good. His just war theory, for instance, created its own problem:
“Thus, while Augustine’s position was certainly moderate in relation to a pacifist or pro-war position, his theory spawned the entire Western legacy of legally declared war.” (294)
Like many thinkers today, Augustine is more eager to split the difference between two opinions than wrestle with what the gospel actually proclaims. This puts Augustine in a position to maintain a radical position toward unity.
This radical unity and its just loophole allows him to support specific times for violence. Such as violence against political enemies or to reinforce the strict adherence of new catholic doctrine.
This allows him to paper over the side effects of his vision for a catholic church. Small things like the driving out of people he labels as heretics and demonizing the different.
Honestly, Augustine only looks moderate in the stark relief of the exaggerated features of the extremes.
The Augustinian Effect
But the effect of Augustine’s brand of moderation continues.
The picture of the Kin-dom Jesus paints in the gospels is vivid and humble. It calls for great stands against injustice and a radical realignment toward love. He even goes so far as to call us to make friends of our enemies.
That’s what Jesus spoke of. He never spoke of just wars or casting out the heretics.
Augustine’s moderation made political sense, but was terrible for the gospel. It distracted us from the good news and our Kin-dom work.
And we accept this distraction, like we accept the anti-Jewish strains and endorse wars and crusades as just. But doing so inhibits the gospel. Like a cancer free to grow in the lungs and lymph nodes to spread throughout the body. A fundamental distortion and sickness that couldn’t possibly reveal Christ to anybody.
I’ll leave the last words to Howard-Brook:
“Yet one of the most harmful outcomes of his moderation was to lead most churchgoers to see their “Christianity” as relevant almost exclusively to the afterlife, and even then, not calling for serious transformation of self and society to assure one’s place in heaven. His “mercy” to the ordinary people who showed up on Sunday has left a legacy of largely biblically illiterate, culturally conditioned Christians, who aren’t expected to do “more” than be a little kinder to their neighbor. While he recognized the radical call of the gospel in his own clerical community to, say, economic sharing, he limited such discipleship to the elite few. To this day, most Christians don’t expect to hear their preachers challenge their relationship to the great systemic evils of unjustly distributed goods and wealth, war and violence, racism and sexism, and environmental destruction. Christian politicians can safely ignore the admonitions of prophetic voices, knowing that voters have long ago accepted that the role of “religion in politics” is limited to the realm of personal, private morality. People who dare to issue such challenges—from what we call the “left” or the “right”—can be relegated to the category of “fanatics.”
“In other words, moderation has the ring of finding common ground, refusing to be swayed to extremes. But when moderation amounts to “a little Jesus” mixed with a lot of “what makes sense in our culture,” it sounds more like unfaithfulness to the radical call of the gospel to “come out” of empire.” (295)
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