Emperors don’t want the poor in spirit. They want loyalists.
Today I’m continuing my reflections on the recent CAC Conspire 2018 conference I attended. Last week I reflected on the thread of slavery and its legacy that ran through much of the conference. Today I want to focus on a single line.
Richard Rohr’s line above really caught my attention in terms of its relevance for understanding the cultural shifts happening in America today. Richard was speaking about the history of Christianity and the changes that took place after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 AD. Overnight, Christianity changed from being an underground religion that brought hope to the powerless into the state religion, adhered to by leaders and sycophants who became Christians only because the Emperor did.
When leadership started to become Christian because it was politically expedient, rather than because of the message of Jesus, priorities changed. As Richard says, the Emperor didn’t want his political leaders to be poor in spirit. He wanted them to be strong. He also wanted them to be loyal to himself and to his regime.
I don’t often wade into political waters here on this blog, but today I will. President Trump wants the same type of loyalty as Emperor Constantine. As with Constantine, it’s less about loyalty to the structure of government than it is about personal loyalty, to him as ruler. As a result, Republican leaders who have chosen to stand behind Trump are shedding traditional notions of Christianity like an outdated skin, seemingly without any care for the consequences, or for the moral and spiritual whiplash they’re causing across the country.
This also means we’re getting a good sense for how those early “Christian” leaders might have looked and acted. Being poor in spirit—literally or figuratively—doesn’t matter. Following Jesus’ teachings isn’t important. Adhering to the Christian moral code is counterproductive—because, for these leaders, the point of being a Christian isn’t about Christ at all. Instead, it’s about being seen to belong to the religion of the person in power in order to become, or remain, part of the oligarchy in power.
So what does this mean for Christianity, and for sincere, faithful Christians? It’s embarrassing, for one thing. It’s frustrating, for another. It’s agonizing to have the faith coopted so thoroughly and misguidedly for political purposes.
Then there’s how it looks to people outside of Christianity. For those who do not understand what’s happened with this loyalty process, it’s become an easy way to write off Christianity altogether. “If this is what Christianity is about, I want no part of it.” Frankly, I agree. If this is what it means to follow Jesus, I want no part in it either.
But this political form of Christianity is not what it means to follow Jesus—and this pattern has repeated itself numerous times across the centuries. Think for a moment about the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the literal battles between Catholics and Protestants. All of those movements must have caused thoughtful, sincere Christians to cringe and feel mortified. (The historical roots for “mortified” actually mean “put to death,” and this process certainly can put to death our admiration for the Christian faith if we are not careful!)
Which brings me back to the theme of the Conspire conference: the path of descent is the path of transformation. Perhaps we need to be mortified, spiritually. Perhaps Christianity needs to fall and fail, to lose power, publicly and dramatically, so that it can return to its roots and reconnect with its soul.
It is critical that we return, again and again, to the roots and soul of the Christian faith. We must return to Jesus. As Hebrews 12:2 puts it, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. If our loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings, we become a very different kind of Christian.
How are you called to be loyal to Jesus?