One of the most startling events in Christian history, and indeed one of the most game-changing events in Western history, was the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century. While the whole process of the “Christianization” of the Roman Empire took decades, Constantine’s favoring of this once-despised sect set off a monumental shift in the life of the Empire. And it’s safe to say that neither Christianity nor the West has ever been the same, for better or for worse.
1700 years later, and the question of whether an Empire can be “Christian” remains open, but we have a lot of evidence to suggest that it’s a fool’s errand. Politics demands the kinds of cut-throat choices that don’t seem compatible to the humble way of Jesus. And the power associated with an imperial court and the high emotions of theological debate have proven to be a very bloody combination. The “best” Christian Emperors mostly abdicated and became monks; the “most successful” often persecuted those who have come down to us as the true Saints of the age; and the “worst” were just as tyrannical as any ruler the pre-Christian West had come up with. All told, it’s easy to conclude that marrying Empire and faith was a bad deal for both Church and State.
In the historical record, it’s also clear that it was the Roman court that became Christian and not Christians who came to power. By this I mean that the complicated rituals of Roman civil religion within the court were simply replaced by Christian rituals, and Christianity’s own rituals became more complex to befit its new lofty status as the religion of Emperors. The Church hierarchy even came to mirror the baroque complexity of the Imperial court.
The irony of course is that Jesus had warned his followers about the dangers of power. Mimicking the ways of kings was precisely what Jesus told us not to do:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mt 20.25-27).
This teaching is echoed in the famous hymn in Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient
to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Phil 2.5-8)
The point of both passages is that most basic (yet always difficult!) Christian principle: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The image we are called to reflect is not that of the Emperor, but of the slave.
A legitimately Christ-ian (i.e., coming from the teaching of Jesus) approach to power is to reject it. It’s paradoxical to point of obscurantism. It’s almost impossible to imagine a human authority system that would work in this way. But then again, that’s the point. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. And while we in the Church are in the world, we too are called not to be “of this world.” The Church is called to be an outpost of God’s alien kingdom in this world, and each of us is called to be an ambassador. We may live in this world — in Canada or the United States or China — but we represent the values and advance the interests of the Kingdom of God. If we are given authority or power in this world, we are called to execute that authority remembering our sacred Constitution: that it is those who mourn, those who are poor, those who hunger and thirst after justice who are blessed; and our Declaration of Independence from this world: “to bring good news to the poor;” “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
With the gift of hindsight, the “Christian Empire” seems a contradiction in terms and a great disaster. It’s easy to paint with broad strokes and say that the Church gained the world and lost its soul. But of course, life is rarely that simple. There were those who fled to the simplicity of life in the desert rather than be tempted by the gilded halls of Imperial Church life. And there were many who more or less successfully navigated life as ambassadors of God’s Kingdom within the Imperial court. And with all things, we need to judge our ancestors in faith with the same grace and compassion for how they lived within their circumstances that we hope future generations will have for us in our own.
The point is simply that Empire and the Kingdom of God can never be fully reconciled. As those who are citizens of God’s Kingdom, we will always live with this tension.
I will leave you today with these words from the Apostle Paul, written to the Christians in the very heart of the Roman Empire, still relevant for us today:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12.2)