For better or for worse, 2018 is history. We cannot change history. We can, however, learn from history and shape the future…..
Reviewing 2018 events, I have been struck again by how some news-making Christian leaders have not empowered people but exercised their power OVER people: Roman Catholic ordained ministers, who support women’s ordination, have been quickly removed from their ministry. Highly qualified and respected gay people, after announcing they are getting married, have been fired from teaching or parish ministry positions. Theologians offering new insights and or critical observations about institutional leadership have been sidelined or fired. And of course continued sexual abuse of children, men, and women. Yes there is a very warped RC institutional understanding of human sexuality; but the key issue here is power. In a vertical power pyramid, the guys on top take advantage of those beneath them. The most recent revelations, hitting the news this week, are about a decades-long sexual abuse of nuns in India by RC ordained ministers, while their bishops looked the other way. In the ecclesiastical pyramid the old boys club remains very powerful. The patriarchal pyramid.
Nevertheless, POWER OVER PEOPLE is not a Christian virtue; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
As we begin 2019, I have four short reflections about Christianity and power: (1) a bit of history, explaining how Christian leaders became power bosses; then (2) two Gospel readings about Jesus empowering people; (3) some contemporary observations; and (4) a bit of self-defense.
(1) Historical Reflection:
In the fourth century, Christianity emerged as an accepted and welcomed part of the Roman Empire. Ironic to say the least. As the Christian religion, with strong Roman Empire support, developed a more defined institutional structure, a major paradigm shift was underway. Sometimes people and institutional leaders neither see nor understand the long-term implications of what they are getting into…….
In the autumn of 312 CE, Constantine and his soldiers, according to the old legend, had a profound military-religious experience, encouraging them to fight under the sign of Christ. Fighting under the insignia of Christ, at the Battle of the Tiber’s Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s troops defeated his major rivals, especially fellow emperor Maxentius, whose head was triumphantly carried through the streets of Rome. Constantine became the single Roman Emperor. He converted to Christianity (but was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337). Historians wonder if he really became a Christian or very pragmatically used the growing Christian religion to tie together his unsteady empire……
Constantine was certainly pragmatic and hoped to unify the Roman Empire by promoting just one religion for all. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity one of the legally recognized religions in the Roman Empire. Then, in 325, he convened a council of all Christian bishops in Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey). They formulated the Nicene Creed – still used today — and demanded that all Christians accept it. For Constantine it was another step in unifying his empire. Although Constantine died in 337, forty-three years after his death his dream was realized with the 380 CE Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Christianity to be the ONLY legitimate religion for the Roman Empire. Church and state were becoming one. Church leaders became imperial leaders in power, influence, courtly attire, and imperial protocol. The bishops of Rome gloried in it.
Curiously, the Nicene Creed of 325 said nothing about what Jesus had taught, beyond the idea that God is a Father. It said nothing about loving one another, about compassion, or forgiveness, or helping the poor and needy, or renouncing violence, or building bridges with one’s enemies.
Thanks to Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, institutional Christianity shifted its identity focus from correct Christian conduct to doctrinal fidelity and institutional obedience. It was indeed a major shift.
(2) Gospel Reflections:
We begin with Luke chapter 7:19-23: “And John, calling two of his disciples, sent them to Jesus, saying ‘Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ And that very hour Jesus cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits. To the blind he gave sight. Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news preached to them.’”
Jesus did not OVERPOWER people. Jesus EMPOWERED people.
Jesus taught by example not dogmatic decree. See Luke 10:25-37: “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ “
(3) Contemporary Observations:
If fidelity to Christian doctrine is the sign of an authentic Christian, rather than correct Christian conduct, some very strangely behaving people carry the label “Christian.” They can say “I believe” and continue oppressing the poor, denigrating women, mishandling immigrant children, and destroying the environment. When Christian leaders ignore the ethic of Jesus, they become strange proclaimers of the Gospel. Right now I am thinking about those USA evangelical pastors who see Donald J. Trump ushering in the second coming of Christ. They proclaim as well that opposing DJT policies is satanic.
We need Christian leaders but not self-protective and ignorant power bosses. The church is a community of faith. The church is the People of God. The church is a life-giving community of men and women with active concern and lived-out conviction.
(4) Offering critical reflections is hardly anti-Christian
Despite what some occasionally suggest, I am neither anti-Christian nor anti-Catholic. Church criticism, indeed, must be constructive; and it should be characterized by objectivity, informed understanding, open conversation, and constructive dialogue.
Throughout the coming year I hope we can better appreciate the full picture of what it means to be a Christian. I hope we can become better informed, more collaborative in our decision-making, and more courageous in our critical words and constructive actions.
Warmest regards and every good wish for 2019.