Constantinian or Christian?
Many people seem to equate “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the American constitution with “acquisition of unlimited wealth and power.” While it’s debatable if the founding fathers actually meant “the ability to acquire unlimited wealth and power”, this is not actually in our constitution. In fact, our fellow citizens and humans in many cases have their lives and liberty stolen, but many of us ignore this in pursuit of greater personal comfort and security (among other things.) In fact asking folks to do *anything* out of the usual for community or public wellness is met with opposition of some kind. Somehow we’ve come to the place where deference and concern for public wellness is seen as an infringement on personal rights.
Christian narratives carry a lot of dissonance for me here. Many white, middle, and upper class Christians tithe to their largely segregated congregations, and give money to missions overseas, where there are people doing charitable work they can give dollars to, but don’t feel like they have to share resources with on a continual basis. Giving charitably is a personal choice, which is acceptable, and feeds the seductive narrative of being a "good person". Relinquishing resources of any kind to those in need in our own country through a public system is unacceptable because not only is there lack of personal control, there's no sticker on the "good person" sticker chart for doing the social bare minimum. However providing sanctuary to those who are running for their lives is one of the oldest and holiest callings. Scripture says that those who entertain strangers (immigrants and travelers) may be entertaining angels unaware. But welcoming immigrants shifts our social power and responsibility in ways many find uncomfortable or even scary. There is an added level of dissonance for me when I see things like Tom Keifer's documentation of items left by those detained at the Mexican / American border. His photo documentary is powerful, moving, and incredibly humanizing. But these images are the most striking to me as a Christian:
When we ignore and shut out those in need, we are shutting out people of many faiths - but especially people of our faith. How is it so easy to other-ize those praying to the same God for a chance at a life free of terror?
I grew up in a home that often discussed how the government wanted to take and waste our money, while in the same breath hearing how everything we owned and the money in the bank really belonged to God. Which is it? Are our resources ours, or are they Gods? If they really are Gods, and we are stewards, as many who revere Scripture claim, both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about responsible stewardship.
There were many laws in the Old Testament that provided for common welfare - the trio that often represents Old Testament marginalized communities being “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger / alien” (stranger / alien being immigrants and travelers.) There were laws about leaving food in the fields for those who can’t provide for themselves, the laws about Sabbath weren’t just about taking a day to go to Synagogue, they were about legislated rest, for everyone including the animals and the land. There’s the year of Jubilee, which was to happen every 50 years, erasing all debt, and returning land to its original inhabitants (wouldn’t everyone be in a tizzy if we tried that now). It’s odd to me that throughout my childhood I remember religious groups fighting specific social wars - to keep “Christ in Christmas” (even though our timing of Christmas celebrations really appropriates pagan traditions and Jesus was likely born in the spring) or to keep prayer in schools (but I never heard of religious groups fighting for school lunch debt to be abolished) or to keep the Ten Commandments proudly displayed publicly (but we didn’t fight for any semblance of modern day interpretations of Sabbath laws, or gleaning laws, and DEFINITELY not laws suggesting any form of Jubilee. I mean even the idea of doing away with college debt leaves some folks wondering what this "socialist" world is coming to.)
It’s ironic how many Christians who fought and still fight these culture wars do so in the name of their faith, but ignore how radical and transformative its basic tenets can be. It often seems Christians who claim their faith has transformed their lives still give their allegiance first to their chosen national identity. I’m pretty sure those ten commandments they worked so hard to keep in public have something to say about idolatry. It’s been a while since I memorized Exodus 20 as an 8 year old, but I’m pretty sure the first commandment is “You shall have no other Gods before me”. (It also talks about not worshiping graven images which has me feeling some kind of way about the outrage over statues coming down, but that’s a topic for another day.) Are the culture wars really about our faith, or are they about wanting to retain a social Christian privilege? The prophets are full of dire predictions and judgement against Israel for idolatry and for oppressing the marginalized people of the time - the widow, orphan, and stranger. If you want a rousing and convicting call to activism, read Isaiah.
In the new testament, Jesus entered His earthly ministry with a mic drop in Luke 4:14-30, telling his hometown crowd that not only was He God on earth to bring redemption and salvation, He wasn’t here (just) for them. He was here for the Samaritans and the Gentiles too. He refused to be exclusionary and that was, and still is, revolutionary. He challenged the power dynamics of the day. The crowd marveled at His speech and presence, until He challenged the social and spiritual exclusivity they believed they were entitled to. Then the crowd turned murderous. In His first public address, His home town tried to run Him off a cliff. I guess some heated exchanges on social media might not be so bad in comparison. Jesus goes on to clear merchants out of the temple (I’m guessing flipped tables would have counted as property and financial damages. Maybe even...looting?) and calls the religious leaders of the day “Sons of Satan” among other things. I’m not trying to paint Jesus as overly divisive, but we like to focus on the miracles and the blessings which divests us of our accountability for how we steward not only our finances but our social and relational power. We listen to sermons on the beatitudes and ponder how we can learn to be meek, to be peacemakers, to be humble - while clutching tightly to our social order. One theme that repeats throughout the entire Bible is the subversion of empire whether it’s Egyptian, Babylonian, Israeli, or Roman. I’m pretty sure if we were still writing Divinely inspired scripture that would include the colonizing American, British, Spanish, and French empires too.
What I have finally realized, after years of reading and searching for answers, is that some Christians worship a different version of God. Some Christians worship the God that is more of Constantine than of Christ, the God whose name was invoked on crusades and the doctrine of discovery. Some Christians still worship the idea of God used to sculpt a preferred social norm of Eurocentric colonialism.
Others worship a God who hears the cries of the oppressed. They worship the God who sees, God with us, the God who once upon a time wove all of creation together in perfect harmony. Of course, as always, there’s a continuum of religious belief, and many try to hold both worlds. I think much of the unrest in Christianity shows that we must eventually choose who we will serve.
My faith dictates how I believe I'm called to steward my relationships - with other humans and with the rest of the natural world. Maybe if we Christians were really living humbly and walking justly we wouldn't need emblems of our faith in society to show people Christianity. WE would be showing people Christianity by the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self control) which would be abundantly available to them in all our interactions and in our communities. If the fruit of the spirit is not the fruit in our relationships, interactions, and communities we are missing something important. If the fruit of the spirit is not the fruit of legislation and politicians we back and vote for, we are missing something important. If the image of God in humanity is being tortured and traumatized and we stand with the oppressors instead of standing up for the oppressed, we are missing the heart of our faith.
I want to be crystal clear about something here: Removal of public emblems of Christian faith is not persecution or oppression. Protection of public health is not persecution or oppression. Losing privilege and social status and standing is not oppression. The Merriam Webster definition of oppression is as follows:
1a: unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power, the continuing oppression of the … underclasses— H. A. Daniels
b: something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power
The definition of oppression is important when we contrast our constitutional right of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" with how it's often translated "unlimited pursuit of wealth and power." If we are actually committed to pursuing power instead of liberty and justice (for all), any limits or boundaries feel oppressive, when in fact we refuse to see who we have oppressed in our wake. As Ibram X. Kendi asks in Stamped From the Beginning, when we say we believe in freedom, do we mean we believe in freedom from oppression, or freedom to oppress others? This makes all the difference.
When people try to discount or minimize the trauma experienced by marginalized communities in order to keep their status quo, they are telling me what kind of freedom they believe in.
When people assume their opinions and ideas are more important than others lived experiences, they tell me what kind of freedom they believe in.
When people turn discussion of oppression to discussion of property instead of people, they tell me what kind of freedom they believe in, and where their priorities lie.
When people support politicians and legislation that limits or endangers the ability of LBGTQIA+ folks to find work or housing (both things that affect the very bottom level of Maslows heirarchy of needs for human safety and security) they tell me what kind of freedom they believe in.
Constantinian Christianity subverted a revolutionary faith meant to give freedom to the oppressed, instead giving freedom and license to empires to continue oppressing.