Has Christianity Outlived its Usefulness?

Has Christianity outlived its usefulness, or more to the point, is Christianity at all relevant any more in a post-modern world? Coming from an American evangelical background and graduating from an evangelical seminary, I could never have imagined I would even think these questions, let alone say them out loud. Traditional conservative Western forms of Christianity value conformity and certainty above doubt, which is seen as a lack of faith. Cognitive dissonance is to avoided at all costs. But what has been sacrificed on the altar of certainty is honesty and in the end, truth itself.

If you have followed my blog you know that the last half dozen years of my life have been a spiritual journey marked by a gradual deconstruction of what I had been taught about God, the church, the Kingdom of God and my place within the framework of a religion called Christianity. The seeds of my discontent actually go back much further, to my time in Bible School (Vanguard University, So. California) and deepening at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena California. Coming into contact with others holding more diverse views on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way, creates all sorts of dissonance and raises questions about the status quo one was raised in.

I think, what we have seen in the last couple hundred years is the unraveling of Christendom: the marriage of church and state, which began with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. By the end of the 19th century Christendom was dead in Europe replaced largely by secularism. The late 19th century in America saw a last attempt at reviving a Christianity that was in full cardiac arrest. The paddles of fundamentalism were applied to the heart of a church that was clogged with racism, nationalism and white exceptionalism. The trouble was and still is, the rest of the world has moved on, not caring whether the patient live or dies.

Like the writing on the wall seen by Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, the world has observed the church in action and found it wanting. The incongruity of a church that seeks to control other’s sexual desires and actions yet is plagued by sexual scandal itself, that has replaced spirituality and unconditional love with doctrinal certitude and litmus tests for inclusion, is now seen as the judgmental, bigoted and unloving organization that it really is.

This is not, on my part, a chastisement of individuals within the church, many who are wonderful people, but of the institutionalization of spirituality, the attempt to contain and control people in the name of religion. In her book, “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes our post modern age as one of a spiritual quest, an awakening of spirituality. Less religious, in many ways, yes, but not necessarily less spiritual. For Bass and in others like Harvey Cox, what the world is experiencing is a new “spiritual awakening,” often devoid of historical religious trappings or taking a radical reinterpretation of what was past held to be immutable.

One of the major hurdles Christianity needs to overcome is its tribal nature. Religions sprung up as tribal deities were invoked as guardians, providers and for the fertility of crops and procreation. The Hebrew Scriptures are a good example of this phenomena. As such, tribal gods competed with each other and religions clashed, often violently. As tribes grew and became city states and eventually nations, the tribal spirit of competition and violence traveled along, largely unchanged. Religion was exclusionary by nature and was linked to “belonging” to a particular tribe or nation. Religion and state partnered in controlling the citizenry, enforcing religious laws. There often was no distinction between the secular and the religious.

Perhaps all of life is to be understood spiritually, and nothing, if done with understanding, is purely secular. But if all is spiritual then what do we make of the tribal competition of the world’s religions? What do we do with the almost immediate schisms that plagued Protestantism following the nailing of the 95 Thesis? Are we as spiritual beings, reflectors of God’s image to continue dividing ourselves into groups that have a “corner” on spiritual “truth?” Is spirituality to be defined by having that corner on religious doctrine?

And this leads into the second of what I believe to be a major shortcoming of the Church: the replacement of an encounter with the Divine with “knowing and defending the right views.” The Bible, for example, becomes a battleground, a bastion of facts and rules to be believed in, or your faith is in question. Without going down the rabbit hole of inerrancy that conservatives created a century and a half ago to combat liberalism, I will say that this particular theological framework, designed to take all the guessing out of Christianity, has pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin down on conservative evangelicalism. By forcing allegiance to this boondoggle of a belief system, severe damage has been done to the Christian faith in the West. Worse yet, it has engaged theologians in a worthless task of defending it instead of working on what manifesting the love of Christ in the world should actually look like.

The authoritarianism that comes from a literalist understanding of scripture, as I have pointed out in past posts, denies any meaningful reform within the conservative church, and puts it at odds with any progressive advancement or understanding in a postmodern society. Rather than a source of wisdom or a tome of spiritual truths, the Bible becomes a book (singular) of “facts.” Those “facts” are then marshaled to support the belief that Iron Age concepts of family life, governance and spirituality were meant to be adhered to today. This is why conservative churches practice subservience of women, why men try to control women’s bodies, why those churches obsess over sexual practices, have purity balls, support nationalism (racism in disguise) and abhor sexually non-binary people.

Finally, fundamentalism in Christianity, mirrors a broader movement of fundamentalism worldwide, both secular and religious. As progressivism gains more steam, the backlash has been immediate, and in places, severe. While evangelicalism declines in progressive societies like Europe, Canada and the US, it grows in Third World countries where totalitarian or fascist regimes give it sustenance. The recent resurgence in the US of a fearful, largely White conservative religious/political voting block represents one such example of the conservative backlash among modernist evangelicals trying to stem the tide of progressive reforms. It reflects the ancient belief that, like the Tower of Babel, races, peoples and nations are to be kept separate, humanity is not one, my nation is better than your nation, my race superior to your race. In short, it is an attempt to divide rather than unite. Because this is counter to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and because it is creates an unhealthy society, Christianity, as a religion, must ultimately fail for the good of humanity. A church that actually follows Jesus must rise instead. Will it?

Further reading:

Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox

Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray

Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger E. Olson

Is Evangelicalism a Threat to Democracy?

—Oh boy, where to start? The title sounds like click-bait, and I wish it were. As I have stated in the past, I grew up in the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world and 4th largest Protestant denomination. Although fiercely non-Calvinist, the denomination shares much of the same inclinations of conservative Calvinist churches. Although I have very little in common with the denomination now, I have always held out hope that they would move into the 21st century and leave the 19th century behind. This of course, is my hope for the Calvinist groups like the Southern Baptist denomination as well.

—The Assemblies is the fastest growing church body in the Global South where Pentecostalism is spreading like wildfire, growing 3 times as fast as Catholicism. While Christianity is shrinking in the Western Hemisphere, in Asia, Africa and Latin America it is growing rapidly. But there is a disturbing side to all this. Those countries have been politically swinging to the hard right as of late. Brazil is one such example. (1)

—Brazil has had its share of financial and political problems and scandals. Socialist reforms have, in large part failed in the Global South as a result of widespread fraud and governmental corruption. Pentecostals have been slowly building influence and political clout in Brazil. Tired of the problems in their country, they have turned to a right wing politician that has expressed disturbing views. I bring this up as it fits a pattern we are seeing among evangelicals: support for and enthusiasm for authoritarian leaders. They fit the pattern of populist support of right wing oligarchs that promise “law and order.”

—Instead of the Global South bringing a new perspective: a non-white perspective, to evangelicalism, we are seeing the same fears and xenophobia exhibited south of the border as we are seeing among white evangelicals north of the border. Any hopes I previously held in this regard for the state of evangelicalism have been dashed.

—So what does this have to do with democracy; it fits into a broader ultra conservative backlash that we are seeing around the globe; a pushback, if you will against progressive ideals. This is exactly what is behind the almost monolithic support among evangelicals for such an antichrist figure as Donald Trump: he feeds off their fears, and represents a past where they felt they were in control of things.

—The ironic thing about the “average” evangelical, American or other, is the sense of “patriotism” they feel they are exhibiting. But in fact, the controls they wish to enforce on others, the limitations on other’s personal freedoms, the restrictions on immigration and asylum, are antithetical to a free democratic society. What we are seeing among many evangelicals is similar to a “soft fascism.” The yearning for a regimented society, strict laws and an ultra-Nationalist viewpoint; all hallmarks of the Trump agenda as well as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

—As Trump has recently expressed, he is a “nationalist,” (2) so too are most evangelicals. Evangelicals in America have so completely identified with a white brand of nationalism that true democratic principals are almost impossible to find. Let me be clear; all forms of government are man made attempts to solve real world problems and evolve the use (or misuse) of power. Democracies, dictatorships, communism: all fall under the category of “principalities and powers.” As such they are more or less antithetical to the Kingdom of God as they operate on the principals of coercion rather than self-sacrificial love. But some systems allow more leeway for the principals of the Kingdom of God to operate than others. Fascism is definitely not one of those systems that allows for free expression of a cruciform church.

—This is what I have tried to express in past posts; a church that is controlling, that seeks power, that marginalizes others is not in the will of God. It is not reflecting the cruciform love of Christ. This is not only bad news for the witness the Church is supposed to have in society, it is bad news for a free democratic society. I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I think evangelicalism has become dangerous!

1 https://theconversation.com/brazilian-evangelicals-swinging-hard-to-the-right-could-put-a-trump-like-populist-in-the-presidency-96845

2 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/texas-trump-speech-takes-turn-nationalist-181023143833295.html

Evangelicalism and Why Fundamentalism Matters

—I’ve been struggling for a week now trying to determine how best to approach my next blog post. I have recently been interacting with quite a few very conservative evangelicals, who are more fundamentalist than evangelical. The dividing line between the two is becoming increasingly fuzzy these days. This is due in large part to shared presumptions about the Bible, the death of Jesus and the shared view of premillennialism. Part of my hesitation has been due to not wanting to write a “hit piece” on evangelicals. I know a great many of them, I was raised in that “tribe,” and for the most part, they are very decent people. It is therefore quite frustrating, when in dialoguing with them, they discard the struggle for social justice and equality as a “distraction” from the gospel, or as a number have suggested, not a part of the gospel at all. This is especially ironic as the church itself has been a perpetrator of social INJUSTICE often in the past. (See: https://weseeinamirrordarkly.com/2018/09/20/the-church-as-contributor-to-social-injustice/)

—Two years ago I started blogging on WordPress. One of my main goals was to elaborate on and to learn more about The Kingdom of God as described by Jesus. Having grown up evangelical, I have had to fight past my own preconceptions, what I had been taught from an early age: namely that Jesus’ message was a message about escaping God’s wrath against mankind, and going to heaven. This is the gospel in a nutshell for most American conservative Christians.

—Along with those preconceptions I had been taught a particular time frame of events concerning the coming Kingdom, namely dispensationalism. In that school of thought a number of unrelated passages of scripture are woven together rather imaginatively to suggest the “End Times” will include a sudden “rapture” of believers (removal of the church), a 7 year period of “tribulation” of those left behind, persecution by the antichrist and the beast followed by a great battle where Christ returns and kicks $!&. Then the “millennial reign” of Christ would begin.

—This was uncritically excepted as “Biblical teaching” in all the churches I attended before Seminary. The majority of evangelicals in America fall into agreement to some degree or another with this belief. The fact that this is a modern interpretation and has no previous antecedent in church history seemed to matter not, as most churches I attended had little or no knowledge of church history anyway.

—The historical backdrop for this particular time frame for the Kingdom of God owes its development to a number of events toward the end of the 19th century. Revivalism stoked by fears over a rapidly changing America. The industrial revolution and the diminishing of rural America. Growing social unrest over women’s rights. Violent protests against immigrant workers, Italians, Chinese and Irish, Catholicism and socialism. For Americans that had taken White male Protestant privilege for granted, these were scary times.

—Into this mix came a longing to escape. From the perspective of many white Protestant Christians, things were going down hill fast. It seemed to many that we were in the “last days,” spoken of in scripture. “Nailing down” the minutiae of scripture concerning eschatology became an unhealthy obsession. Numerous prophesy conferences were called to set all the facts in order. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from society and viewed themselves as set apart from a perverse generation.

—As a result, fundamentalism grew increasingly inward and tribal. Society had become so “wicked” and the Kingdom of God wouldn’t occur until AFTER Christ returned, so the goal became to “reach” as many sinners as possible before the return of Christ and the removal of the church before the “tribulation.” 

The postponement of the Kingdom of God until after the return of Christ (post millennialism), basically absolved fundamentalists from any obligation to seek social justice before Christ’s return. It dovetailed nicely with the racism and social injustices of Southern Christianity. As a result a particularly ugly pattern of Christianity flourished in the Bible Belt bolstered by post millennial eschatology and an inerrant Bible that was used to support unChristlike behaviors.

—So what does this have to do with evangelicalism? Unfortunately, American evangelicals share some “DNA” from fundamentalists. Fundamentalism “birthed” the evangelical movement. Looking back on my own history within evangelicalism I can only surmise that the evangelical narrative is purposefully designed to obfuscate the truth of its racist underpinnings as much as possible as to present itself as standing on the higher ground in opposition to a degenerate world. In a way it is scapegoating, a primitive form of blaming others for wrongs so that in comparison one can feel better about oneself. It is a form of deflection.

This inability or unwillingness to “own it” when it comes to accepting responsibility for injustices is hurting evangelicalism badly. To be unaware or in denial of the past almost guarantees a repeat of past mistakes. And we are seeing that play out in real time. Of course, this is not true of ALL evangelicals, but there is enough unification of belief to talk about a monolithic white culture of privilege that pervades much of it. In retrospect, understanding how much race played a part in the narrative of fundamentalism, it should come as no surprise that the majority of white evangelicals simply do not see bigotry as something they need be concerned about.

—There are some encouraging signs that some evangelicals are concerned that the movement has steered too far to the right, but their warnings have largely been ignored by those in power. When these brave souls dare question the pervading evangelical juggernaut all hell breaks loose, literally! Books are removed from Christian book stores, speaking engagements cancelled, teachers fired, death threats are made. They are told they are being “too political,” (immensely ironic considering the pack of evangelical “advisors” bowing and scraping at Trump’s feet). The price of being a prophet has never been cheap.

—Unfortunately, the evangelical identification with the Republican Party has never been higher than it is now. This is not to say that the Democratic Party has God’s ear and the Republican does not. But it is to say that evangelicals have increasingly aligned themselves with a political machine that since the 1960’s, has sought to marginalize others based on ethnicity, sex and sexual identity. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the 60’s,70’s and 80’s saw a mass defection of Southern fundamentalist Christians to the Republican Party as a result of their former Party pushing social reforms benefiting blacks. The move was entirely racially motivated.

—Not satisfied with changing the face of the Republican Party for the worse, fundamentalists are at work trying to change the face of evangelicalism as well. This is underlying reason for the recent attack on social justice by John MacArthur, and why so many pastors signed on to it. The objections of moderates like Russell Moore have largely been drowned out. It does not bode well for evangelicals.

Further reading:

Mark A. Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

Daniel K. Williams, “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism.”

Stephen Prothero, “Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections).”

The real origins of the religious right: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

 

 

 

Trump Laughs Uproariously: Mocking Victims of Sexual Assault

Has the world gone mad? I just watched the news where Donald Trump ridicules two female reporters, telling one she “never thinks,” (1) then a day later mocking sexual assault survivor Christine Blasey Ford regarding her testimony in The Kavanaugh hearing. (2) If that was not disturbing enough, when asked by a reporter later if he had any words for American men regarding sexual assault, he made excuses for men by stating “it’s a very scary time for men in America.” (3)

When asked what Dr. Ford found she remembered most clearly about her assault she replied, “the uproarious laughter, between two men having a good time at her expense.” The parallels between Trump’s ridicule of the female reporters, the Trump “pussy grabbing” tape, his mocking Dr. Ford’s account of sexual assault and his fears for men being held responsible for sexual aggressions, all amounts to his uproarious laughter at women who are sexually assaulted.

Then I hear Paige Patterson, who was forced out of his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary due to mishandling of sexual assault and subsequent cover up, is slated to teach a class on “Christian Ethics” at a non SBC related school. (4) My head is spinning!

What is most disturbing about all this? These men? No. There will always be men in positions of authority and power who use that power to exploit women sexually. What disturbs me most are the “little people” who enable them. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of them. The Trump faithful. The myriads of people who monolithically laugh along with him at the expense of rape victims, the disabled, news reporters, refugees, Muslims, Gays, women who seek equality and anyone who is non-White.

It is chilling to see the faithful behind Trump at his rallies, cheering, laughing, shaking their heads in agreement, shouting his slogans. I came of age during the tumultuous 60’s. I thought the bigotry, sexism, racism and hate was largely behind us. I was naive. What we are seeing is the worst in humanity, emboldened by a master manipulator, feeding on the fears of White male misogamists and racists. There is a tangible aura of fear, stoked by White privilege that hangs over America. It is not new. We have sensed it before. When we forget the past, or are lulled into complacency, it returns. It is a cancer that returns after a few decades of remission.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough to combat the hate that spills forth from Washington. The original Republican Party died and was replaced with a doppelgänger in the 1970’s. Thousands of White, racist Southerners left the Democratic Party and flocked to the Republican Party when desegregation was forced on them by a Democratic controlled administration. People, the gospel and social justice is, by nature, political as well as spiritual. VOTE!

  1. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/10/trump-tells-female-reporter-shes-never-thinking.html
  2. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/02/politics/trump-mocks-christine-blasey-ford-kavanaugh-supreme-court/index.html
  3. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/10/02/donald-trump-says-very-scary-time-young-men-america/1498770002/
  4. https://relevantmagazine.com/god/paige-patterson-who-was-fired-for-covering-up-student-rape-allegations-will-now-teach-a-christian-ethics-course/

Franklin Graham: Rape Irrelevant

—One of the most neglected areas of social justice involves how women are treated in society. The past week I have been involved in numerous discussions on Facebook and online forums concerning Judge Kavanaugh. I was particularly struck by Rev Franklin Graham’s opinion on the matter of Kavanaugh’s alleged attempted rape some 35 years ago while he and the alleged victim were in high school. Franklin’s response was that if true, it was irrelevant, because it “happened nearly 40 years ago.” (1) He then goes on to describe it as an 11th hour political stunt.

—Now I don’t know if Dr. Ford’s allegations are true, and I don’t know if Judge Kavanaugh’s denials are true either. This much I do know, however, is that almost to a man (and woman) the evangelicals I have dialogued with believe Judge Kavanaugh, and disbelieve Dr. Ford, just like the Rev. Graham. The converse is true when I think of the progressives I have talked to. They almost to a man or woman believe Dr. Ford is telling the truth.

—The reason I believe for this, is evangelicals are taught to trust authority. In a complementarian world view women simply do not have authority over men…period. Hence in a he said, she said scenario, the woman will always be distrusted in favor of the man, who “was created first,” and has greater authority. It has been that way for thousands of years. Men like Graham are simply repeating the status quo of generation upon generation before them.

—This sets up an ironic situation where evangelicalism has a tendency to side with power and authority and disregard those without those advantages. And, unfortunately in the case of rape they will side with the accused automatically rather than seek to console the victim.

—Whether this will ultimately bear on the Kavanaugh hearing, I do not know. I do know that I find Dr. Graham’s comments deeply disturbing.

  1. https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=T8ljWlevaU0
  2. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithinpubliclife/2018/09/franklin-graham-attempted-rape-doesnt-matter/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive+Christian&utm_content=43

The Church as Contributor to Social Injustice

I am going to continue my previous post on the evangelical statement put forth by John MacArthur as a number of issues have come to my attention in my subsequent interactions with evangelicals online. Some clarifications need to be made.

First, as I have pointed out in my previous post, much of this is about jockeying for control of evangelicalism itself. This battle is not new, but began in earnest within the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) three decades ago. Southern Baptists comprise the majority of evangelicalism with many “hidden” branches posing as “unaffiliated” or “nondenominational.” Moderates were forced out of the denomination over a period of two decades back in the 80’s and 90’s. There was a concerted effort to replace moderates with fundamentalists in their educational system. Since then the denomination has doubled down on the efforts to squelch any attempts at reform. MacArthur is a product of that wing of evangelicalism.

Secondly, although both fundamentalist Christians and Progressive Christians present Social Justice as either, a. irrelevant or b. central to the Gospel, the truth of the matter is more complex. By quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus began his ministry with a reference to social justice, but his message was never about reforming the Roman government. It was directed at social injustice and religious hypocrisy WITHIN RELIGION. This is what initially got Jesus in trouble. It was his prophetic indictment of the Jewish religious authorities using their power to exploit others. This is why many evangelicals will point out (correctly) that Jesus never tried to change the government or shame the government into social programs that benefited the poor, etc..

So here is where it gets awkward for the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism. Historically they have been one of the prime perpetrators of social injustice in America. For the past 150 years, white fundamentalism has been a major hurdle and has systematically targeted people of color as well as Catholics, Jews, women, Gays, and a host of others. Bolstered with Bible verses and the assurance of an inerrant Bible, preachers in the South convinced their parishioners that God was behind their cause. Much like MacArthur and his dismissal of social justice, these pastors were convinced the “modern secular” abolitionist goals of the North were a threat to the Gospel and contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.

As the government pushed for social justice for poor Blacks, fundamentalist Christians pushed back hard against those reforms, preferring to exploit others based on race for their own financial gain. It is almost as if the Pharisees were lifted out of first century Palestine and resurrected in the 19th century as Southern Christians. In the end Southern Christians were willing to go to war, claiming states rights. The American Civil War killed over 700,000 people. Sadly, losing the war for cessation did not change their hatred and oppression of Blacks. Instead, they sought all sorts of work-arounds to circumvent laws for Black equality. The next 100 years was spent trying to segregate and marginalize Blacks (and Hispanics) as much as possible and deny them quality of life.

Thirdly, this is not “ancient history.” One of the comments I heard over and over in the 90’s from White conservatives was how sick and tired they were of hearing about “200 years of oppression.” A popular bumper sticker read, “If I’d known it would be this much trouble, I’d have picked my own damn cotton!” In other words, they didn’t believe Black claims of oppression had validity. Tragically, this opinion still affects, to one degree or another, about 70% of White evangelicalism. It has expanded to include more than just people of color. Basically anyone other than White fundamentalists is fair game.

So it is no wonder that MacArthur and 7000 other signers of the Statement on Social Justice feel the struggle for Social Justice is a distraction from the Gospel. They don’t believe the struggle is valid in the first place. They uphold a narrative about race and the place of women that is founded in White male privilege. The use of Scripture is used to validate their own presuppositions and biases.

I would add as a fourth point, that the Gospel, as understood by fundamentalists, is really not the matter of concern here. In the early 20th century, fundamentalists eschewed involvement in politics and war. They were accused of being “unpatriotic.” Subsequently, they have bent over backwards to appear super-patriotic. The American Constitution has become almost as sacrosanct as the Bible itself. The argument about Social Justice has become more of an argument about the role of government in society, and how much intervention is acceptable, than a Biblical discussion on social responsibility. This is why the majority of conservative Christians I talk to say they are unabashedly, Libertarians. 

Because of this willful ignorance of past church failures in the area of social justice that evangelical Christianity has stalled. Meaningful repentance needs to take place before the church can be a “witness to the gospel” in society. The church needs to clean house.

Further:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2018/09/over-7000-pastors-admit-they-dont-follow-jesus/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive+Christian&utm_content=43

A Changing Religion: The Merger of Church and State

This has been lifted from a Facebook post by Bob Grayson. When the church was offered the “keys” to the Roman state in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, little did the early church fathers realize what was really happening is that they were offering the keys to the church instead. In effect, the spiritual “principalities and powers” that Paul mentions became intertwined with the very fabric of Christendom.

“A Changing Religion

 Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like non participation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

Several writings illustrate this early commitment to Jesus’ teachings on simplicity and generosity. For example, the Didache, compiled around 90 CE, says: “Share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!” [1]

The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized and largely focused on sexuality. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.”

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.

When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!

The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.”

— Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.

 [1] Didache 4:8. See Tony Jones, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community (Paraclete Press: 2009), 23. More about the Didache is available at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.