Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting further on the state of Christianity in America. In last week’s post, I shared some pretty blunt thoughts—honestly, criticism —about Christianity’s cooptation by the powerful. It’s not a new story, of course. It’s been happening since 313 CE, when the Roman Emperor Constantine coopted Christ to win a battle and, when that was successful, turned Christianity into the official state religion of his empire.
The transition from an underground, upstart faith of the underclasses was, over not too long a period, coopted by the ruling class to meet their needs. I’ve been reflecting on this transition since I attended a CAC conference last autumn. Today, I’m feeling compelled to focus on the positive—perhaps in order to support my own hope for resurrection in the midst of many modern crucifixions taking place in this country.
One of the responses to the cooptation of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine was the rise in Christian asceticism. Now known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers, early Christian ascetics left the cities and moved out into the desert. I had thought they were seeking to maintain a connection with the simpler origins of Christianity. Instead, it turns out that Anthony the Great, who founded the movement, was seeking an alternative to martyrdom, which was considered by early Christians to be the highest form of sacrifice during the early centuries of Christianity, when it was undergoing persecution.
It seems we can never be immune to shaping our faith to address our perceived needs. Over time, those early ascetics banded together and formed monastic communities. Over the centuries, those monastic communities were also coopted by the powerful. Abbotts and abbesses in medieval times were the children of powerful nobles who often held significant secular as well as religious power themselves. As part of the English Reformation, King Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries so that he could reform the power structure—and take hold of their significant wealth, in the form of both lands and possessions.
Today, there are new responses to the cooptation of Christianity. One of them is New Monasticism. Initially arising as early as the 1980s, the movement has gained energy and diversity over the past thirty years. It is not limited to Christianity, but seeks to reconnect with the best in what each person’s religious tradition has to offer, specifically in the intentional and contemplative life. One example, which I’ve mentioned in the past, is The Simple Way, founded by a group of students who bonded over supporting homeless people who lived in an abandoned inner-city church in Philadelphia. Today, they live together in their best approximation of the early Christian communities—right where they are, in Philadelphia—with the motto of Love God, Love People, and Follow Jesus.
As Richard Rohr says, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. New Monasticism seeks to criticize the cooptation of Christianity by showing how Christ might have lived and ministered if he had been born in a contemporary capitalist country. Rather than directly opposing the coopters with criticism, they are choosing to make faithful examples of their lives. As St. Francis is reputed to have said, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
I’ll share more about that next week. For the moment, I invite you to consider how you can, in your own way, practice the better aspects of your faith. How can you be an authentic and practiced example, following in the footsteps of Jesus?