“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’” (Mark 12:17)
In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which effectively legalized Christianity. A decade later, Christianity had become the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Reading these words as I write them brings to mind those TV commercials citing various consumer and financial products as being the “official” product of sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
Prior to the pandemic, I often had reason to drive on I-95 in South Philadelphia and couldn’t help but to see Lincoln Financial Field, the Wells Fargo Center, and Citizens Bank Park, all where Philadelphia professional sports teams play and all with their corporate names largely emblazoned on the exteriors of these facilities. By various acts that led to the mainstreaming of the faith, creating within it structures and hierarchies along Roman lines, and giving it preferred status, the Church was positioned to be a partner with civil government…and, I fear, sometimes its enabler.
Christianity, the Official Religion of the Roman Empire!
As a result, maintaining its core character as the exclusive creation of Jesus Christ, being His prophetic voice in the world, and performing the priestly function for the blind, the captive, the prisoner, the oppressed, i.e. everyone He loves and seeks, has often been mixed with serving as an instrument of power to pacify populations and sustain the status quo.
The political terms “right wing” and “left wing” had their origins in the French Revolution of the 18th century. In the French National Assembly, as delegates were debating and attempting to draft a constitution, those aligned with the king and his efforts to minimize reform and retain power and privilege, including the wealthy aristocratic class, would sit to the right of the person presiding over the debate. Those seeking a republican form of government with less power for the king and more rights for the king’s subjects sat to the left of the person presiding. It was then typical of the clergy to sit on the right.
The king and his kingdom were eventually overthrown violently. Among the repercussions in France to this day is a chilly attitude toward the Church. That attitude has not always been warranted, but it can be difficult to overcome the collective memories and biases of a people.
There are plenty of other examples of state/church partnerships such as the various “religious” crusades to retake the Holy Land, forced (sometimes brutal) conversions of Jews and indigenous populations around the world, its role in justifying and sustaining slavery and the ideal of Euro-based ethnic and racial supremacy, and church-endorsed antisemitism by both the western and eastern Church.
Quite frankly, I don’t believe empires need an official religion…they tend to worship themselves. They seek their own ends which typically don’t align well with the vision of GOD for His world as expressed in His Holy Word. History has proven that when the Church of Jesus Christ aligns itself closely to the politics and economics of empire, the power of its witness suffers. It gives to Caesar that which is GOD’s, and the blind, the captive, the prisoner, and the oppressed, i.e. everyone He loves and seeks for His kingdom are at risk of being confused by the Church’s voice or worse, turned-off by it.
I accept that some will naturally be turned-off by the message of the gospel which I believe is good in every way. Jesus said to expect this. The hearts of many are hard and the enemy of souls works hard to keep them hard. I doubt though that those whose hearts are open and seeking the authentic GOD will be confused by the agapē of His servants. If the Church is confusing or turning people off for other reasons, it is a true crisis for the Church.
Monk and mystic, Carlo Carretto (1910-1988) said that “when there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation.”1 By “contemplation,” he means the intentional practice of being awake to GOD and whatever He may be saying or doing at a point in time. Contemplation is an quiet, patient openness, awaiting and listening in order to become aware and to discern rather than a reacting and a doing.2 Contemplation is a way of being and a type of prayer that was heavily deemphasized and discarded by those who led the Protestant Reformation. It has only been in relatively recent times that contemplation as a spiritual discipline has regained some acceptance in the Protestant Church.
Carretto goes on to describe the crisis: “The Church wants to feel able to explain about her [Lord] even when she has lost sight of him; even when…she no longer know his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.”3
I believe “the other people and other things” has often been the alignment with worldly power and the perceived perks that come with that. The Church, in its history, has demonstrated a belief that such alignments can help it advance its cause which it genuinely believes to be spiritually and morally sound and, therefore, beneficial for all. But I raise the question as to whether expedience (doing things because they are advantageous) has ever been a legitimate spiritual value. Subscribing to this indicates a belief in “the ends justifying the means.” It is utilitarian philosophy (that which achieves a desired end for the perceived benefit of the majority is justified).
Clearly, some believe in this. I don’t. It too easily leads to taking what belongs to GOD and giving it to Caesar. It may work for the benefit human systems; I don’t think it works for the kingdom. Perhaps that was the point Jesus was making.
1 – Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes. Orbis Books, 1974.
2 – Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. InterVarsity Press, 2005.
3 – Carretto.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2020. All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise indicated.