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.