Setting Our Stories Straight: The Myth of Christendom

So far, all of the posts in this series have been haunted by a shared ghost, the ghost of ‘Christian civilization,’ or what is known as Christendom. Christendom is the belief that Christianity could be, and was, expressed in and through the power and authority of self-consciously ‘Christian’ governments. In this worldview, Church and State are understood to work together, like a body’s two hands — not identical, but two centres of power working together and sharing the same goals, namely the protection and furthering of Christian civilization.

This idea has been around a lot longer than the Doctrine of Discovery, which could be considered Christendom’s daughter, but, as we will see, is no less foreign to the spirit of Biblical and patristic Christianity.

I spent much of last Summer writing about the relationship in the New Testament between the Kingdom of God and the forces of Empire, so I won’t rehash it all here. To summarize, both the teaching and life of Jesus and of the Apostles suggests a cautious and overall pessimistic attitude towards civil authorities. Governments are to be obeyed as much as possible, but it is clear that the ways earthly authority works are not God’s ways. When the opportunity to do things the way the kingdoms of this world do them presented itself to Jesus — for example at his Temptation in the Desert, at his Triumphal Entry, or when Peter drew his sword to defend him in the Garden of Gethsemane — he always refused. His Kingdom was not of of this world, and he rejected all of the tricks and tools of this world’s Empires. The ethic of Jesus stood in radical contrast to the ways of Empire and so it was assumed that civil disobedience would be necessary from time to time and that followers of Jesus could expect to be persecuted. And this was the state of affairs for the first three centuries of Christianity. Jesus died as an enemy of the state, the Apostles were imprisoned and tortured, and subsequent generations of Christians experienced periodic and local persecutions throughout the Empire. To be a Christian was to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, which included a very real possibility, if not expectation, of violence at the hands of the State.

With all this in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how just a few centuries — or in the case of those who suffered under the Emperor Diocletian, just a few years — later, many (though certainly far from all) Christians would be singing the praises of the Christian Empire.

The change is usually attributed to the emperor Constantine (ruled 306-337). But Constantine and his legacy are far more complicated than this simple attribution would suggest. Constantine did not in fact become a Christian until late in life, and the famous story of his military victory under the miraculous sign of the chi-rho (a monogram that was a symbol of Jesus) does not appear until after his death. What Constantine did was to end the persecutions against Christians, officially legalize Christianity, try to bring order to often violent doctrinal debates in Christian communities, fund the construction of churches, and eventually, make Christianity a preferred religion within the Empire. These are important events that turned Christianity from a persecuted to a privileged faith, but it was hardly it the “triumph of Christianity,” as it has historically been labeled. Constantine’s rule was, on the whole, conservative, and Christianity had little impact on the goals, values, and practices of the Empire. But neither was it, as many content today, a “Constantinian captivity of the Church;” many Christians were uncomfortable with the new relationship between the Church and the State and resisted imperial overreach. To cite two big examples of Christian resistance to State interference, the Church rejected Constantine’s favoured position at the Council of Nicea, and there was a huge upswell of Christian desert monasticism among those who feared the Church’s witness would be compromised by the new world order.

In many ways, the emergence of Christendom might have more to do with the legacy of Constantine’s primary biographer, Eusebius, than of Constantine himself. It is in Eusebius’ highly influential Ecclesiastical History (ca. 325) and The Life of Constantine (ca 337-9) that we see the myth of Constantine, and of Christendom, take shape. Eusebius wrote his history of Christianity as a narrative leading to Christianity’s ultimate triumph in Constantine’s reign. Christianity’s end goal is seen not in the second coming of Christ, but in the establishment of the Christian Empire. Constantine, not Christ, is the fulfillment of history. It is also in Eusebius, in his later Life of Constantine, that we find the earliest extant record of the myth of Constantine’s battlefield vision in which Christ commanded him to military victory. Eusebius presents Constantine as a new Moses, freeing a captive people. In these works we see a genuine and legitimate gratitude at the end of persecutions turned into something quite at odds with the teachings and life of Jesus and traditional Christian self-understanding.

As time went on, the existence of the ‘Christian Empire’ — a State government that self-consciously used Christian language and symbolism and built up the Church’s wealth and infrastructure — was a fact of life for Christians, East and West. The question was no longer if such a thing was a good idea, but how it should behave. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that when the ‘needs’ of the State run afoul of the ethic of Jesus, in the Christendom model, the State always wins. This is true even (or maybe especially) when the conflict is religious in nature. Augustine, writing in the fifth century, reflected on what is called “just war theory.” He determined that it is the responsibility of a Christian ruler to enforce the commandments, violently if needed (see his On the Correction of the Donatists). This served to reinforce the Western Church’s belief in redemptive violence — that it is okay for those in power to exercise violence if they believe it serves just ends. Eight hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas would expand on this, writing that heretics “deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the whole world by death.” Aquinas too developed a theory of just war, saying that violence could be considered “just” so long as the was undertaken by those with the God-given authority to rule, the cause was just, and that they promoted goodness and avoided evil. From a practical perspective, the realpolitik of statecraft, all of this makes a lot of sense. And, this understanding of “just war” and redemptive violence is a helpful context for understanding the Doctrine of Discovery. But they are far from the teaching and example of Jesus.

They are also rather self-serving. Almost anything — up and and including claiming, occupying, and stealing foreign lands and enslaving their inhabitants — could be justified in this model. In a Christendom worldview, whoever was in power held it under divine authority; they could therefore call any cause ‘just’ and come up with any ‘good’ outcome they hoped to achieve. We see this circular reasoning at work in the writings of the Portuguese official Zurara, whom I mentioned briefly in the post on the Doctrine of Discovery. He was deeply disturbed by what was happening in the African slave trade, but set those concerns aside because it was being undertaken by the duly appointed Portuguese crown for the ‘just’ cause of strengthening Christian civilization against the threat of Islam and promoting it by introducing the slaves to the ‘true faith’. This was a sick, self-justifying, and self-reinforcing mentality in which anything could be labeled “Christian,” “just,” and “good” because a self-identified “Christian” ruler said it was so. As Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah put it, “The formation of the Doctrine of Discovery in the fifteenth century was the culmination of a diseased theological imagination that resulted in the severely dysfunctional expression of the church” (Unsettling Truths).

But this is only one side of the problem of Christendom. It wasn’t just a self-justifying doctrine for rulers and governments, but an insidious and thoroughgoing ideology that penetrated every aspect of colonial life. In areas such as Australia and Canada, where colonizing activity was predominantly British, the social situation of the Church under the assumptions of Christendom had a huge cultural impact. This is because, particularly in England, the Church was seen as a natural and respectable living for the second or third sons of aristocratic families. This in turn tied the Church to the interests of the ruling classes. (The Church, for example, was vocal in its opposition to the expansion of voting rights in the United Kingdom.) Things such as care for the poor or concern for the well-being of Indigenous peoples was acceptable, but only undertaken in ways that would not challenge the existing systems and structures of society. Being a ‘good Christian’ was not about following Jesus as much as about upholding the social norms of respectable British society. Therefore, the Church was a prime driver and enforcer of the status quo. The problem with all this is that this conflation of European culture and Christianity left mainline Christianity unable to speak with an independent voice. Writing about the Church in Australia, but in a way that would fit the American and Canadian situations just as well, Chris Budden notes, “It is the story of a church that sat with empire and often did its theology more as a servant of the state than of the suffering Christ” (Following Jesus in Invaded Space).

This critique hints at the main problem with the doctrine of Christendom: It trades a theology of the cross entirely for a theology of glory. It sees Christianity in triumph instead of suffering, in power instead of humility. As contemporary politics in North America shows pretty clearly, this continues to be a very attractive and seductive approach for many Christians. And yet we can make no mistake: It is completely at odds with the teaching and life of Jesus, the New Testament, and the first three hundred years of Christian history. To quote March and Rah once more:

The teachings of Jesus, his disciples, and the apostle Paul do not gesture towards Christendom. … Empires are concerned with self-preservation, conquest, and expansion. The means of an empire are military power and financial resources. Jesus’ disciples left everything — their livelihoods and their security — to follow him.

and

Their discipleship is not to be gauged by their wealth, their power, or their prosperity here on earth. They will know they are following Jesus correctly when they are rejected, insulted, and even persecuted — just like Jesus and the prophets who were before them” (Unsettling Truths).

Christendom was a tempting idea, but it was a mistake in the fourth century, a mistake in the fifteenth century, and remains a mistake in the twenty-first century. A truly ‘Christian’ civilization could never be based on a theology of glory. A society can only be considered ‘Christian’ inasmuch as it looks and sounds like Jesus: inasmuch as it is willing to confess and repent of its sins, engage the world stage with humility, carry its cross, operate with grace and generosity in foreign affairs, and prioritize justice and health for all over the security and wealth of the few in its domestic policies. But these are not the attitudes represented by Christendom, which was nothing other than the ways of Empire dressed in Christian clothing, baptized but not transformed.

Christendom was a lie that silenced the true Gospel and caused irreparable harm around the world. The Church and all Christians must repent and renounce it, its hopes, and its dreams, once and for all.

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