Religion and Empire


Religion and Empire – Sermon Audio

Audio of my sermon “Religion and Empire,” delivered on February 18, 2018 at First Unitarian Church OKC, in Oklahoma City, OK. Based on an earlier blog post: Refusing the Hand of the Empire

Below is the text of the Sermon:

“Religion and Empire” by Rev. Dr. Mark Davies

A Sermon given at First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City on February 18, 2018, based on the author’s essay “Refusing the Hand of the Empire,” See Refusing the Hand of the Empire

Reading from the Edict of Milan written in 313 C.E.:

When we, Constantine and Licinius, emperors, had an interview at Milan, and conferred together with respect to the good and security of the commonweal, it seemed to us that, amongst those things that are profitable to mankind in general, the reverence paid to the Divinity merited our first and chief attention, and that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best… And accordingly we give you to know that, without regard to any provisos in our former orders to you concerning the Christians, all who choose that religion are to be permitted, freely and absolutely, to remain in it, and not to be disturbed any ways, or molested. And we thought fit to be thus special in the things committed to your charge, that you might understand that the indulgence which we have granted in matters of religion to the Christians is ample and unconditional; and perceive at the same time that the open and free exercise of their respective religions is granted to all others, as well as to the Christians… Moreover, with respect to the Christians, we formerly gave certain orders concerning the places appropriated for their religious assemblies; but now we will that all persons who have purchased such places, either from our exchequer or from anyone else, do restore them to the Christians, without money demanded or price claimed, and that this be performed peremptorily and unambiguously; and we will also, that they who have obtained any right to such places by form of gift do forthwith restore them to the Christians: reserving always to such persons, who have either purchased for a price, or gratuitously acquired them, to make application to the judge of the district, if they look on themselves as entitled to any equivalent from our beneficence.

The Edict of Milan, a portion of which I just read, made Christianity an acceptable, legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman Empire; and following this Edict, the emperor Constantine proved himself to be quite favorably disposed to Christianity – giving it protected status, helping it organize more effectively, and assisting its fight against perceived heresy. Constantine even helped oversee the Council of Nicaea where the Church laid out its official doctrines. After the Council of Nicaea, Constantine helped the Church enforce these official doctrines with the force of the state, and sometimes this included violent force. Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until 380 C.E. under the Emperor Theodosius I, but it was under Constantine’s rule that Christianity first had its taste of being the favored religion of the Empire, and it was not a taste the Church wanted to get out of its mouth.  It was a taste of legitimacy and power that the Church savored.

One can understand why the Church embraced the acceptance of the Empire. It does seem much better to be supported by the Empire rather than being persecuted by the Empire. Restoration of properties and protection by the Emperor sure beats being eaten by lions or crucified. It is hard to blame the Christian Church for accepting this new legitimate status.  It seems to be an easy choice; a choice between lions and legitimacy seems like a no brainer. Christians had suffered greatly at the hands of the state for over two and a half centuries. What a relief it must have been to escape the waves of persecution that at times were horrific and deadly.

That being said, it may come as a surprise to you when I say that I think that one of the biggest mistakes ever made in the history of Christianity (and there are a lot of them) is when the Christian Church decided to believe and accept that the Empire was on its side. When Christianity allowed itself to be co-opted by Constantine in the early Fourth Century C.E., it was a bit like if Luke Skywalker had accepted Darth Vader’s offer to join him and rule the galaxy together. You may remember the scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke during a light saber battle with Darth Vader in which he has just lost his right hand and his hanging on for his life over a deep abyss, learns that Darth Vader is his father. Darth Vader reaches out his hand to Luke telling him that their ruling the galaxy as father and son is the only way, but Luke not only rejects the offer to be the servant of the dark side, he leaps into the abyss without knowledge of whether the leap will lead to life or death. Unlike Luke, the Church reached out and took the hand of the Empire instead of taking its chance with a leap of faith into the abyss, thereby becoming the servant of the dark side for the sake of its own survival.

The western part of the Roman Empire fell soon after its takeover of Christianity (a fact not easily explained by Christianity’s defenders), but Christianity re-attached itself to numerous empires thereafter to maintain its hegemony in Europe and beyond. The Christianity of Empire, as opposed to the Way of Jesus, was used to justify crusades, inquisitions, conquests, colonization, slavery, and genocide – often done in the name of Christian mission, but always done for sake of the Empire.

That Christianity became an imperial religion is antithetical to everything Jesus lived and taught. The Empire was never a friend to Jesus, and Jesus was never a friend to the Empire. The Empire executed Jesus with its most public and brutal method in order to display its power and eliminate a threat, and when the Jesus movement would not die, the Empire eventually co-opted the movement for its own purposes. That is what empires do.

Once the Empire co-opted the Christian movement, it focused on the otherworldly aspects of Christianity in order to keep power and control over people in this world. The Empire or State maintained control of the affairs of this world, while religion prepared the soul for the next. Obedience to the Empire’s authority in this life became one of the prerequisites for enjoying the rewards and avoiding the punishments in the next. The Empire made central the peripheral strands of eternal punishment and eternal reward in Christianity as a means to maintain and consolidate power and keep order among its subjects.

Christianity in the United States continues in this long and tragic tradition of serving as the religion of the Empire. The way of Jesus has been mistaken for the American way; including adherence to its social, political, and economic systems. Through increasingly sophisticated and ever present forms of propaganda, a form of Christianity is used to bolster loyalty to and support for the Empire. Every cry that we are a Christian nation is an echo of the imperial voice that seeks to tame Jesus and use the power of the Jesus movement to consolidate power of the Empire through the alienation of the “other,” by highlighting that their way is not our way, that “they” are not us.

Those who wish to the follow the way of Jesus, those who wish to follow the way of love and justice, rather than the religion of the Empire need a reminder that following Jesus is better done in the catacombs rather than cathedrals, in the barrios rather than basilicas, in the streets rather than status seeking institutions, in the turning over of tables of injustice rather than taking up seats around them, in the resistance to Empires rather than in their maintenance. People who follow the way of Jesus follow a Middle Eastern person who refused to take the hand of the Empire and who was therefore tortured and executed by imperial authorities.

As you can see this morning, I am wearing a purple stole. I don’t usually where the liturgical colors of the Christian year when I speak in Unitarian Universalist congregations, but today I made an exception. Today is the first day of Lent, and given that Lent is a time for repentance, prayer, and reflection; I decided it was appropriate to wear this particular stole. As someone who is part of the Christian tradition. I believe those of us who identify as Christians must repent from our attachment to the Empire. It is time for those who follow the way of Jesus and those who follow the way of love and justice to once and for all reject the way of Empire. It is time for Christians in the United States to get their Pre-Constantinian identity back and get to the work of bringing love and justice into a broken world, even if it means letting go of that which appears to be working on behalf of their institutional survival. The Empire was never on the side of Jesus, and it never will be.



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Loving Guns More Than People


The only people with the power to do something comprehensive about mass shootings are the people we elect to public office, and the majority of the people we elect to public office not only do nothing, but they actively block anything being done and in many cases vote for legislation that makes the situation demonstrably worse.

These are the politicians who recite the mantra of “thoughts and prayers” after each mass shooting but do nothing to make it more difficult for people to acquire these weapons of mass destruction.

These are the politicians who suddenly become deeply concerned about mental health after each mass shooting but do nothing to actually fund mental health care or make it more accessible for all.

These are the politicians who recite “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” after each mass shooting while totally ignoring the fact that people with semi-automatic assault weapons with high-capacity magazines (and in some cases bump stocks) can kill many more people much more easily than people without them.

These are the politicians who after a mass shooting say things like “if someone wants to kill a lot of people, they will find a way even if we have no guns at all,” while ignoring the fact that for some reason these killers keep on choosing assault weapons as the easiest way to kill large numbers of people and that we try to regulate other means and methods of killing lots of people except when it comes to guns.

These are the politicians who after each mass shooting say we should arm underpaid teachers with guns in the classroom but are unwilling to even adequately fund public education.

These are the politicians who call other acts of mass killing “terrorism,” but if it is a white man with an assault rifle, then they talk about “troubled” people and “lone wolves.”

These are the politicians who say after each mass shooting that it is “too soon” to talk about gun control, which would make it impossible to ever talk about gun control given there are so many mass shootings.

These are the politicians who will do and say anything to keep their coveted A or A+ from the NRA.

But before we simply blame this on politicians, we must recognize that it is we who keep electing them over and over again. We are at the point where people around the world are asking, “When will Americans love their children more than their guns?” – and we don’t have a good answer to the question.

If we keep voting for the politicians who do nothing, who actively do the bidding of the gun industry and the NRA, and who allow these weapons of mass destruction to proliferate in our land; then we are doing worse than nothing to answer this question. If we are horrified by the mass shootings, but we are not voting at all, then we are doing worse than nothing to answer this question. We are actively blocking anything being done, and that means we really do care more about our guns than our children.

In the end, we the people are responsible for the actions of our politicians, and nothing will change if we do not care enough to change it. Up until now, we have shown that we do not care enough, and that means thousands of more people are destined to have their lives cut short because as a society we care less about them than we care about our guns. We really do love guns more than people.

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Last Chance

last Chance

For many persons and groups in the United States, the Trump Administration represents their last chance – the last chance for xenophobes to keep out and deport immigrants and refugees, even those who have been living in our country since they were children; the last chance for Christian theocrats to encode their religious beliefs into public policy and law and stack the judicial system with like-minded judges; the last chance for racists and white supremacists to maintain and expand white dominance of our culture and economy; the last chance for sexists and misogynists to perpetuate patriarchal systems and practices and control the choices of women; the last chance for those clinging to fossil fuels as our primary energy source to dismantle environmental regulations and avoid any responsibility or accountability for climate change; the last chance for those pressing for more income inequality to satiate their greed by entrenching regressive tax systems and tearing apart our social safety net; and the last chance for those who want to privatize public institutions to make more money from privatizing education, prisons, and healthcare.

When people see something as their last chance, they get desperate, they do things they would not otherwise do, they support people horrible persons like Trump to be their leaders because, well, they think he is their last chance. Perhaps this is why there is almost nothing Trump could do to lose their support. In fact as Trump doubles down on the worst of who he is, his support among those who see him as their last chance continues unabated and is even strengthening.

The “last chancers” do not care about collusion with Russia; they do not care about Trump’s affairs, sexual harassment, and sexual assault; they do not care about Trump’s corruption and nepotism; they do not care that he defrauds contractors and customers; they do not care about his ethics violations; they do not care about his violent rhetoric; they do not care about his blatant racism (many of them share it); they do not care about his attacks on a free press; they do not care about his denigration of the Justice Department or the FBI; they do not care that he is a threat to our democracy and to their very foundations of our republic – because he is their last chance, and when people think someone or something is their last chance, they can get desperate.

Given the attitude of the “last chancers,” those of us resisting Trump and standing against the threat his administration poses to our republic must realize that those who support Trump as their last chance will do almost anything to keep Trump in power. We have to realize that we are not dealing with the Republican party during the time of Nixon who put country over party. We are dealing with a party of last chancers, a party and supporters who are desperate to make their last chance pay off for them. Mueller is not safe, the FBI is not safe, the Justice Department is not safe, our immigrant and refugee friends and neighbors are not safe, and our country is not safe as long as the last chancers are in power. We cannot simply sit back and rest on the assumption that checks and balances and institutions will save us because we are living in the time of desperation of those who see this moment in time as their last chance. Our institutions may yet prove resilient. We may yet make it through this constitutional crisis; but it will take significant engagement, vigilance, and an awareness of what is at stake. And what is at stake? – any hope we might have for a just, participatory, pluralistic, and sustainable society.

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Be Like George

We have a six month old golden doodle puppy named George. He is addicted to chasing the red light of a laser pointer we have. Let’s just say that it is so bad that when we misplace the laser pointer or the batteries die, finding the pointer or getting new batteries becomes priority number one in our household. When he wants the pointer and there is no pointer, it is a pretty pathetic situation (yes I get that the dog has trained us – don’t judge).

At any rate, the pointer does come in handy when we want to distract George, get him to go outside, wear him out with some good running, or get him to go where we want him to go.

Last night as he was chasing the red light around and around the backyard and through the house, it dawned on me that the American people are a lot like George and our president’s tweets are a lot like a laser pointer distracting us, running us around and wearing us out, and getting us to go where he wants us to go.

Funny thing about our puppy George though; as he is growing up he has figured out that sometimes we use the laser pointer to get him to go places he doesn’t necessarily want to go, like outside or behind his dog gate when we need a break. When George sees the red light going someplace he does not want to go, he quits following it, and he looks up at us with that “are you kidding me” look, and we have to be more creative in getting him to go where we want him to go.

Perhaps we the American people across the political spectrum can learn something from George. Sometimes people try to get us to go places we don’t want to go, and as we grow up we don’t have to follow the little red light of the president’s tweets taking us places where we neither want to go nor should be going.

Perhaps we should try not following the red light of his tweets altogether. I mean let’s get outside and take some walks, throw a tennis ball, or play some frisbee. We can do this America. Be like George (except please don’t eat socks). Stop going where this man wants to take us.

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Simply Immoral

I can see having disagreements and differences of opinion about border security, about what combination of barriers, border control personnel, and surveillance technology should be employed. I can see having disagreements about how many immigrants should be legally allowed to enter the United States each year, about what number of immigrants would be most beneficial to a flourishing society. I can see having some disagreements about under what circumstances immigrants without documentation would be deported to their countries of origin.

These disagreements are part of what it means to live in a free and democratic society. We will never all agree about public policy, and robust disagreement and debate are part of participating in our political process. Allowing for such disagreement and free exchange of ideas is part of what has enabled our country to experience progress in many aspects of our common lives together. Freedom to disagree and debate views about public policy, even though it may be uncomfortable and confrontational at times, is one of the pillars upon which our county is built.

Yes, we can disagree about immigration and border security, but if you are okay with people who have lived here since they were little kids being ripped from their homes and families and sent to countries they have not lived in since they were small children; then you just don’t care about people, you lack a basic capacity to have empathy for other human beings, and you are simply an immoral person.

Your only hope to save whatever is left of your humanity is to repent, ask forgiveness of those you are harming, seek justice for their lives, and work for their well-being. This is your only possibility for redemption.

Until then, if you identify yourself as a Christian, please stop. You can’t be for tearing these families apart and be a follower of Jesus. It is antithetical to all Jesus lived and died for.

If you are going to be a heartless, compassionless, family destroying xenophobe; then stop trying to drag Jesus, who exemplifies the way of love, justice, and compassion, into your pit of hate and fear.

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Please Don’t Let Me Be Silent

Please God, never let me be a silent white person while my brown and black sisters and brothers are living in fear and experiencing injustice and violence.

Please God, never let me be a silent citizen while Dreamers are deported and refugees are rejected.

Please God, never let me be a silent Christian while my Muslim sisters and brothers are being discriminated against and not having their religious freedom respected.

Please God, never let me be a silent man while my sisters are being abused, harassed, and assaulted.

Please God, never let me be a silent cisgender straight man while my sisters and brothers who are LGBTQIA are not being given equal treatment, equal opportunity, or respect.

Please God, never let me be a silent person with health insurance while my sisters and brothers experience a life and death struggle for access to healthcare.

Please God, never let me be a silent person with shelter and food while so many of my sisters and brothers are hungry and homeless.

Please God, never let me be a silent human being while my nonhuman sisters and brothers are suffering, their habitats are being destroyed, and many are being killed to extinction.

Please God, never let me be silent while the whole creation groans in travail and cries out for renewal.

Please God, never let me be silent when the world needs me to speak out.

Please God, never let it be said of me that my friends remembered my silence when they needed my voice to cry out with them for justice.


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Oklahoma, Step Beyond Fossil Fuel


I completely understand why the fossil fuel companies in Oklahoma whose massive tax breaks have broken our state would want to control the state’s response to its brokenness, but I can’t understand why the rest of us would let them.

Letting oil and gas companies control how Oklahoma responds to its revenue failure and budget crisis is a little bit like allowing the person who crashed into your car control where you go to the doctor for your injuries and what body shop you can use to repair your car and then being told not to complain about your chronic back pain or about the paint not matching on your car or about the bumper that keeps falling off.

The fossil fuel companies in Oklahoma own this state. They own the governor and almost every state-wide elected office. They own the vast majority of the Oklahoma Legislature. They own the mayors of our major cities and most of their city councils. They own our universities and their presidents. They own most of the media. The fossil fuel companies own Oklahoma, and thus they utterly and completely own our state’s abysmal failure. And now they want us to trust them to come up with solutions for our state? Give me a break!

In addition to being a failing state in the present, Oklahoma has done very little to prepare for the post-fossil fuel economy. If we think things are bad now, wait 10-15 years when fossil fuel use is in significant decline around the world. 20 years ago, I had hoped that our Oklahoma oil and gas companies would begin to see themselves more broadly as energy companies and help lead the way in the transition to clean energy, but I underestimated their greed and their willingness to sacrifice the well-being of future generations both in Oklahoma and beyond for the sake of that greed.

Not only has Oklahoma done very little to prepare for the post-fossil fuel economy, we have also cut state spending on education far more than any other state since 2008, making it less and less likely that our state will possess the intellectual and creative capital needed to create a new economy. Our best students rightly see that their capabilities will be more greatly appreciated elsewhere unless their field of interest is fossil fuel friendly. Many of the students with great potential still get left behind because our lack of educational funding makes them less and less prepared to succeed in college and in their careers.

Oklahoma’s fossil fueled failures have state, national, and global implications. Perhaps no other states in the United States bear more responsibility for our inaction on climate change than Oklahoma and Texas, and this is why Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and Rick Perry are in the halls of power. They have willingly done the bidding of the major fossil fuel companies and their executives (many of whom are based in Oklahoma and Texas) to accelerate the Trump Train towards climate chaos – all while these same companies spend billions of dollars to confuse people about the science of climate change in order to make trillions of dollars in profits from their fossil fuel assets. Not only do they put profit over state and country; they put profit over the planet. This is the industry to which Oklahoma should trust its future?  – Not if we ever hope to make Oklahoma a flourishing state for all people and not a failed state that continues to contribute to the plunder of our planet.

The future for Oklahoma is not fossil fuel; it is wind, solar, clean energy technology, sustainable agriculture, creative arts, eco-tourism, and innovation for a regenerative economy that contributes to a more just, participatory, and sustainable society. If we really want to step up for Oklahoma, we must step beyond fossil fuel and embrace a diverse and sustainable economic future.

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