In Part 1 of this short series, I discussed the backward nature of the sort of Christianity which must convince people that they are suffering in order to sell them the cure thereafter. Terrible as that sort of culture may be, one may wonder how in the world it came to be. The answer, however, is crystal clear if we just take a look at our history.
When Christianity began, it began among the legitimately oppressed and suffering. It championed those thrown down by the Roman empire, by Jewish religious authorities, and by society in general. It was a movement of radical acceptance and love for the poor, the weak, and the despised. It stood in stark contrast to the Jewish Zealots, who sought a military Messiah to overthrow the Roman government.
Christianity spread rapidly through the Roman empire, but their non-participation in the Roman state cult made them an easy political target: burn a few Christians at your parties to make it look like you, the emperor, are actually accomplishing something. Several Roman emperors persecuted Christians severely, most notably Nero (who, as an aside, is in many ways the subject of many of the prophecies in Revelation).
A curious thing happened under the rule of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century: the story goes that he saw the Christian symbol “chi-rho” (the first two letters of “Christos,” or “Christ,” in Greek) in the sky prior to a battle which he won. He started painting it on shields and armor and so forth. There is much more to the story, and it is suspect whether he was truly Christian or a political opportunist, but to make a long story short, Christianity — once oppressed and downtrodden — suddenly became the official state religion of the Roman empire.
It didn’t take long for the persecution to reverse. For example, after the switch from paganism to Christianity, a group of Christians destroyed a Jewish synagogue. Emperor Theodosius, seeing this injustice, wanted to repair the vandalized facility with state funds. St. Ambrose, a notable figure in church history, opposed Theodosius and managed to convince him that Jews, who did not accept the godhood of Christ, were heretics; thus, we should not support them. This set off a wave of Jewish persecution across Europe.
As history would have it, Christianity has maintained almost exclusive political control of western society ever since, with only the Moors making some headway into Spain for a time. So where were the suffering and the oppressed during this time? Usually stuck under the bootheel of the politicized church. The church bore — and frankly continues to bear — little resemblance to that oddly-peaceful resistance movement that taught us unconditional love for all people, even our enemies.
The supposed suffering of the church in the Western world since the time of Constantine has been in large part a total fabrication. We inherited relics of a culture which suffered legitimately — their letters which we now call Scripture — and then tried to force them into a context from which they could not be more alien. The Church in the West cannot identify with its own savior — or can it?
Pay close attention as I ask this next question: what about the people who are still suffering?
This is the critical question which the Western church consistently fails to ask in the appropriate way. We ask it, but only incidentally, as though solidarity with those who have suffered injustice is secondary to unity with Christ. We pretend as though the pursuit of justice were something that happens after you become a Christian, not the very definition of what it means to be Christian at all. Yet, if you strip Christianity of its message of justice, you have Nietzsche’s madman now asking, “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
If you pursue justice, you follow Christ. If you seek right living, you are God’s child. Since Constantine, the church has largely abandoned this project, seeking instead to maintain its identity through enforcement of specific practices, becoming the source of injustice rather than the instrument of God. But yet, if no one will praise God, even the rocks shall cry out, and so they have! Those thought to have been dead to God — the secular progressives, for example — have cried out for justice. Those who profess none of Christianity’s tenants have become some of Christ’s greatest disciples.
What would it look like for Christians to come alongside Muslims in the US and fight for their right to practice their religion? What would it look like for churches to come alongside the homeless, the prostitutes, the oppressed minorities who cannot rise above the problems presented by their living conditions? What if these weren’t just “ministries” of the church but its primary function? That would be a different sort of Christianity, and then perhaps we could identify with our suffering Savior. Until then, we continually slander His name.