History Questions Us


November 17, 2018

So far this month, November 2018, we have observed two sobering anniversaries.

On November 9 and 10, 2018, we had the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht: an immense rage of murder and violence that devastated Jewish communities across Nazi Germany in 1938. Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked. The Nazi paramilitary SA and civilian rioters demolished 267 synagogues; and 7,000 Jewish businesses were either destroyed or damaged.

The following day, November 11, 2018, we observed the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I — the hideous, and needless, conflict that killed millions, and prepared the way for an even more devastating Second World War, a generation later.

My wife and I, and many friends, observed the WWI commemorations in our current hometown Leuven (Louvain) Belgium. Our university library and great sections of the city were burned and destroyed by the enemy in 1914. The local people said you cannot crush the human spirit. Leuven was rebuilt; and a handsome new library arose, thanks to generous US donations. Then in WWII the city was nearly destroyed again.

In WWII Leuven was bombed by allied forces who made “a tactical mistake,” with major human loss and great destruction of buildings. The people said “we will rebuild.” And many Americans helped them. Today Leuven is alive and flourishing. The great human spirit!

I really don’t believe history repeats itself. It does question and challenge us. The questions which history asks are: why did people think and behave in specific ways back then, and how should people think and act today? The great historical challenge of course is that if we don’t learn from our predecessors, we are doomed to repeat some of their mistakes.

Henry Ford was good at making cars but thought “history is more or less bunk.” I am not an auto mechanic (although, in my high school years, I did restore a Model A Ford, thanks to help from my father and older brother). I would suggest, however, that people who ignore, or who are ignorant about their history, are like trees without roots.

Preparing, a few days ago, for a university seminar, I reviewed the first five hundred years of Christian history. Some thoughts about that today…..

Today we certainly have a better understanding of our Christian history and our Sacred Scripture in specific historical and cultural contexts. We appreciate, better than people did, even fifty years ago, that the church is historical. It changes from age to age.

Ongoing education is absolutely essential for church leaders and believers. I would have little confidence in a cardiologist whose education stopped fifty years ago. Why follow directives from cardinals whose theology is fifty years out of date and grounded in exaggerated clericalism?

Christian Faith = A living personal relationship (individual and communal) with the Transcendent, made known and present in a unique way in the person of Jesus Christ. Theology and church structure (institutional forms) are interpretations of Christian Faith = putting into word and gesture how we talk about and live our Faith and pass it on to the next generation.

When we think about the “Early Church,” we mean three distinctive periods of Christian history: (1) The Apostolic Christian Community = from time of Jesus’ Death/Resurrection until around the year 100. (2) The Greco-Roman Christian Church as distinct from Judaism from around 100 to 313 (Edict of Milan); and (3)The Post Constantinian Church until 476 (Fall of Rome).

Each historic period challenges us today and asks us specific questions.

The APOSTOLIC COMMUNITY was really a community of those following the way of Jesus after the Resurrection. The word “ekklesia” used at this time should not be translated as “church,” but rather as “the assembly” or “community” of believers. Those early Christians had great freedom to structure their lives, since they understood that the historic Jesus did not ordain anyone nor did he lay down any “blueprint for the church.” Ministries were shared by men and women, even the ministry of presiding at the Eucharist.

The big question for us today: how do we regain the Apostolic Community sense of freedom to be creative in church structure and to share equally as men and women in all ministries? They did it back then. Why can’t we do it today?

In the GRECO-ROMAN period, we see a growing separation between the ordained and the non-ordained to maintain “holy order,” and gradual limitations being established on the roles of women in the Christian community. The questions this history asks us are clear: why did they separate the community into clerical and lay classes and why the limitations on women? Who influenced their thinking back then? Who influences our thinking today? Was it good back then? Is it good today?

In the POST CONSTANTINIAN CHURCH, the identity of the Christian church institution changes dramatically. Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire and the church as institution takes over the Roman governmental structure (like having “dioceses” for instance) and Roman imperial court liturgy! (We still see remnants of that in today’s papal ceremonies.)

In this historic period as well: bishops become not just church leaders regional judges; liturgy and sacraments become more standardized; women are edged to the back of the church; and we see the start of a real and powerful clerical culture. And yes – the once pacifist church becomes militarized and, within five hundred years, will launch wars against Muslims.

The Post Constantinian Church asks us some big contemporary questions: Is it healthy for Christian belief when the church and the state become the same thing? Is it healthy when a powerful clerical caste speaks and behaves like it alone is the church? What happened to our understanding of the church as the people of God? And what happened to the church as a prophetic voice for peace and understanding?

May we all listen to our history, reflect on its questions, and find good answers…..

— Jack

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