Sunday, May 23, 2010

Discounting 313

I already posted this blog on Wood Hath Hope but it seemed too obviously T&P not to have it here--with a different title! It's all about new spaces.

First, just a little history.

In the year 313 the Roman Emperor made Christianity a licensed religion. Constantine said licet, let it be permitted. For the first time in its history the movement of Christianity had official and final Roman approval, and it was already older then than the present U.S. Republic. Imagine that: 275 years without any secure government recognition, without having a king or an emperor at your back, without a sure place in society, without public symbols and celebrations to declare your right to exist. 275 years of civic contempt, mixed with oblique influence when people of status became Christian, then punctuated at other times by outbursts of lethal persecution.

When Constantine gave state permission to Christianity he had just won a decisive battle in which he had invoked the Christian god—a voice had spoken to him in a dream (in a later account it became a vision) telling him that he should emblazon the heavenly sign of Christ on the shields and helmets of his soldiers. He thus began the process of the militarization of Christian faith. True, there were already Christian soldiers in the Roman army, but they were there because they had been pressed into service, and seemed faithfully to adhere to the church’s absolute prohibition on killing--if not why was there no hint of a rebellion when Christian soldiers were subject of a harsh purge from the army under Diocletian about twenty years before? In other words they were there as a formal fill-up-the ranks presence, ready the moment the war was over to abandon the profession. Constantine realized somehow that it would be possible to enlist the support of this radical yet influential movement by calling a halt to the bitter persecution of his predecessors and then progressively according rights and privileges to the church, and at the same time creating the self-serving myth that the Christian god had spoken to him directly pledging his support. Christians of course had to want the end of persecution, and they probably shared a general desire for the peace of Roman society rent by continual civil war. Whatever the reasons the combination of Constantine’s moves got the Christian movement to accept the deal he offered and progressively they saw all this as the work of God. (There is at least one monumental image of Constantine’s vision adorning the walls of the Vatican.) A fateful hour had dawned, the seduction of Christianity by the state and its military apparatus. Within the space of one year the bishops were ordering Christians to remain in the army (Council of Arles, 314), within a decade there were religious wars with Christian orthodoxy on one side and heresy on the other, and within a century Augustine had formulated his doctrine of “just war”. The rest is history.

Or a kind of history.

When the emperor says licet Christianity is licensed. It’s allowed to exist by the say-so of the archaic human system built on the death of the victim. And then very quickly it appears that Christianity agrees reciprocally with the state’s mode of existence, with its violence. Christianity becomes franchised by the state, by a human system of violence. And in return Christianity franchises the state, its relentless natural violence. A separation-of-church-and-state motif does not overcome this, rather it effectively masks it. Within the separation lies a mutual collusion. And if biblical people invoke Romans 13 (submit to civil authority) as proof of apostolic support for this situation they conveniently overlook both the vastly different condition of Christianity at the time of Paul’s writing (a tiny apolitical group) and Paul’s more basic theological distinction between the Christian body and the wrath of this present world order.

As is obvious all this has been hashed out before. The discussion between the Christian peace tradition and the position of the mainline “just war” churches is old, bitter and unresolved. What I’m saying, however, wants to add something different. The franchising of Christianity by the state is breaking down from within. The crisis of violence in our 21st century world is of itself dissolving the implicit alliance of Christians and the state, instead opening up a new space where Christians are unfranchised, unlicensed, unofficial….

A new possibility is emerging, created by our contemporary historical crisis of elective wars that never end and the parallel systemic experience of destruction of the environment. The world system can be seen to be terminal and this puts people in a new situation, especially Christians who can recognize that this new situation is, in an amazing upside-down way, the transforming work of Christ. If Christians have colluded with the state and its just wars, Christ and the gospel of the forgiving and innocent victim never have. And so the more and more the world resorts to violence the more and more its violence is seen as...violence. The act of violence becomes implausible, inconclusive, inept, crazy. Our history is spinning into greater and greater chaos because of the refusal of the true answer--the forgiveness and compassion of Christ, which at the same time become the more evidently necessary the more they are refused. Thus Christ has opened up a new opportunity for his followers to return to their original unfranchised, unchained state, to find the gap in the world order where they can truly exist.

In this gap the gospel is free to speak itself in boundaryless transformative terms, without distinction of friend or foe, terrorist or freedom fighter, us and them, righteous and impure. I quote Scott Hutchinson. “The forgiveness at the heart of gospel life removes barriers, loosens bonds, unburdens, sets people free, leads to the mutuality of gifting and being gifted. Exhilarating, fulfilling, and terrifying! The source, of course, is God, whose radical self-giving transforms and endlessly offers life.” And progressively the actual space that Christians occupy is no longer demarcated by the built walls of their franchise but by this new open unmediated space that Christ has created in our time, dissolving the historical nexus of 313.

Tony Bartlett

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