Christianity and Empire

On this 7th of the 12 days of Christmas, let us recall an important theme that often gets lost in the schmalz of the season. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the wise men’s pilgrimage to the infant Jesus. In the course of their search, King Herod is alerted to the existence of this potential future rival. Herod, the titular King of the Jews–a surrogate king, ruling on behalf of the Roman Empire–issues an edict commanding the slaughter of every male infant near Bethlehem under the age of two. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus must flee to Egypt to escape. So Matthew begins, showing us the inherent contradiction between divine and imperial rule. All four Gospel accounts confirm this contradiction by their accounts of Jesus’ death by crucifixion at the hands of the Empire under the Roman governor, Pilate.

The first–and still central–Christian creed was “Jesus is Lord.” Its meaning has largely been lost, however. This creed arose in a political context in which Caesar, the Emperor, claimed to be God and Lord. The early Christians were people whose faith expressed an ultimate allegiance that countered or trumped any claims of the Empire.

Ironically, three hundred years after Jesus, the Empire co-opted Christianity. The Emperor Constantine first made it legal, then made it the official religion, and convened the Council of Nicaea as part of a strategy to help unify, consolidate, and secure his rule through the imposition of doctrinal uniformity and organizational discipline. The “freedom of religion” that we now cherish was not a gift of the Empire, but rather had to be wrested from the State and established ecclesiastical authority centuries later.

Today, the American Empire is celebrated by some. Others rue its emergence. Christians must be wary of the nation state, especially when it exercises imperial power.

When it is construed as unpatriotic to dissent, when dying for one’s country is considered the highest form of sacrifice, when the demands of national security are surreptitiously invoked to limit civil rights and liberties, when “democratic” values are selectively applied in ways that permit torture and other abuses of persons who have been labeled enemies or terrorists and condemned without due process or trial, when the Emperor invokes God and stands above the law, religious freedom is also profoundly jeopardized. Any authentic way of being a Christian or other religious person is fast becoming a mortally hazardous path.

Copyright 2005 by Byron C. Bangert