Christendom is Not Over Yet

I was chatting with Shawn who just got back from his trip to St. Louis – on his way back he took a picture of an enormous Cross. The site of it made my stomach turn, domesticating the cross, and then making it the size of a large building strips the cross of the brutality, and torture that came with along with it. The severity of the Cross should never be overlooked. The cross stood for Roman power, how odd to consider that the crucifix stood for “empire” and how often the American church has uncritically supported our own “empire.” Then Shawn showed me an even sadder sight.

Cross of America – America’s new symbol of Unity and Remembrance.

We know that Christendom has not fallen and that Christ’s work on the cross has been handed over to the empire when we see images like this.

Ironically, when Jesus was on the cross it was because he was subverting the powers, calling them into question, he was a threat to the Roman government and that is why he died an “insurrectionist’s” death. The Church is called to be a witness to the nations, a prophetic voice that calls people to reconcilliation with God, peace and Justice. To use this symbol to promote empire sentiments is slightly missing the point of…well…the entire Gospel.

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Wess

…is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a “released minister” at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

13 thoughts on “Christendom is Not Over Yet”

  1. C. Wess, maybe you can help me with something I don’t quite understand. Christ has been synonymous with empire in the West for over 1600 years. Before and since William Bradford, with Christ’s help, conquered the savages inhabiting North America and afterwards wrote “Of Plymouth Plantation,??? people professing to follow Christ have been projecting Providence on death, conquest and victories of one sort or another, including many here in our great nation for the last 400 years. We now have one thousand six hundred years of political, social and military leaders who have prayed to Christ as they acted, often badly, in the name of empire. This insanity has gone on so long that, if one were to tally all the killings and all of the lives that have been physically saved in the name of Christ, I wonder which number would be bigger.

    Now, I have no doubt that, had Providence handed the keys of the earthly kingdom to the early equivalent of Quakers or Anabaptists 1600 years ago, the history of Christianity would look very different, but here’s what I don’t understand. At what point do you step back from the tree and judge the fruit? 2000 years is a long time. So a small group of naysayers is complaining about a red, white and blue cross, but the rest of the country has it pinned to an article of clothing. Why do you folks count at this point? Am I not justified in concluding that this tree has borne 1600 years of fruit that looks an awful lot like George Bush invading Iraq and, as a result, should just be cut down? I mean, I love what you’re saying but . . .

  2. Wow, Lisa, talk about sweeping generalizations!

    Certainly Christianity deserves a lot of criticism. But, if we swept it away in the manner you suggest than we should then forget about the work of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., or those Quakers and Annabaptists you mention.

    Sure, organized Christianity has a lot to answer for: there’s a lot of bath water. But, there’s still a baby there, too.

    Seems like the religious right have been effective in suggesting that they are the only true “Christianity” in town. Job well done!

  3. Lisa – you might be more right to suggest that civic religion is to blame for the atrocities we see, from Hindu castes to Muslim abuse of women to Christian violence and Jewish facism, and that’s exactly why anyone who’s given it an ounce of thought considers the establishment of religion in the United States as a travesty and an afront to what is best in humanity. When we take our civic ethical base and build our gods out of it (no matter what name we call those gods), you end up with a totalitarianism that would put a smile on Stalin’s face.

    The great thing about the Bible is that it’s a book dedicated to denouncing this sort of behavior – from the earliest Patriarchs to the Kings to the priestly order and the community religious authorities – the Bible’s narrative is one of the Prophets speaking to this use of civic religion to abuse and misuse others. In fact, any time you see “God spoke…” it’s consistently a critical statement about people who use religion this way.

    Christ’s fruit, on the other hand, is sweet and good. It’s what comes when people heed his words, let go of their anger and personal demands, and learn to give everything they are to both God and their brothers and sisters. That’s exactly why the Quakers have ALWAYS held to a non-violent testimony of Christ and have been the first to actively support the civil rights of marginalized people, whether it was legal or not. It’s why we (I’m a lifelong Quaker) still choke when we see people who engage the world through worldly means claiming a cross that demands exactly the opposite.

  4. “Civic religion???: nice term, and nice distinction based on it, and nice references to Dorothy Day and Dr. King. Still, though, I am confused. To what degree is King (who took a small to right a much larger wrong that had more than a tangential connection with Christian empire) or Day the exception, and if they are more anomalous than representational, doesn’t that speak to the point I am making, to my confusion?

    Also, Christopher, while I might share your belief that the commingling of political power and religion leads to mischief for everyone, I don’t think it’s at all accurate to write that anyone who has thought about it reaches the same conclusion. I just listened to Secretary Rice speak at a gathering of Southern Baptists. Paraphrasing her slightly, she said that the administration was attempting to bring terrorists to justice, but if they can’t quite lay hands on the bad guys, they will bring justice to the terrorists, in response to which all the followers of Jesus cheered, with a quiet “amen,??? of course. I think it’s fair to say that many in that convention, who are being courted and seduced by the powers of this earth, have given the matter a lot of thought, and they don’t agree with you, at all.

    Yet, these folks eat from the same tree of life as the Quaker but inhabit a vastly different spiritual world. If Christ is alive and at work in the heart of his followers, why such a difference? If Christ is the common denominator, that would seem to rule him out in answering that question, would it not?

  5. Lisa,
    Much of what has been said here already I am on board with. The answers that have been given will only partially satisfy your curiosity though, and I recognize that any answer I give you can only go so far.

    So here is a simple answer for now – maybe more questions will help me nail down what you’re looking for.

    All of the church, is to be a church that looks, and lives just like Jesus, it is not to look or live like George Bush, Hilary Clinton, the medieval crusading church, the Quaker church or another other person or group through out history.

    And as I am sure you’ve heard – just because the church does it, doesn’t mean that’s what Jesus wants it to do.

    The church, all Christians, are a people gathered and reconciled to God through Jesus. Its the person of Jesus that either makes the church work or not work.

    Secondly the church is to be a people who live out the part of the Lord’s prayer that says “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.”

    Lisa, I will be the first one to admit that there have been terrible things done “in the name of Jesus.” They were not only terrible and wrong but there went against the Spirit of God – they were done out of disobedience. And because we are a community that is supposed to live out this part of prayer – we recognize (or at least some of us) that we need forgiveness as the church. We mess up a lot.

    The Lord’s Prayer was given to the disciples as “the” prayer that would shape the way they think, pray and act. Thus the church is to be a people who seek forgiveness, and who recognize that we need reconcilation to God just asa much as the next person.

    How do I reconcile the “moral majority” Christians to our Quaker brothers and sisters? This is undoubtedly a very hard question, and to be frank (which often gets me in trouble) I have a hard time doing it. Sometimes I think there is nothing Christian about many of these groups, but thankfully I am only a mortal and selfish man who will not be put in a place to ultimately judge people’s hearts.

    The fact of the matter is that both sides are trying to in their own way be faithful to following Jesus – there are parts that are useful in each group and neither one has the monopoly on doing everything right.

    The fact still remains that some of us claim to have the Spirit but don’t really obey it – and worse – some of people don’t have the Spirit at all even though they say they do.

    I do believe that some Christians, and some church traditions have done a better job at being faithful to following Christ (not that they’ve ever had it always right) and that’s why I am what I am. But don’t take this as arrogance or a judgement on the other groups, its simply to say that my experience has been that the Spirit of God speaks in a way that leads toward peace, love, justice and redemption.

    If we do things that put obstacles in the way of those things I question whether the Spirit is there at all.

    To sum this up – I am saying, yes you are right some Christians throughout the history of the church has blantantly disobeyed Christ. We as the church must be characterized by forgiveness as well as asking for forgiveness in those things. And finally, I don’t have a problem thinking that some people and groups have been historically more faithful to the Spirit than others – though I certainly and thankfully won’t be the final judge in that.

  6. Truth is, Wess, you seem like a really sweet guy, and I wish I could say something that ratified your beliefs, but I can’t. I think you are a nice guy simply because that’s who you are, not because the Holy Spirit has caused you to be that way or because Jesus has transformed you. You have the heart that you do for reasons unrelated to religion, in my opinion. I love the fact that you’re honest about the difficulties you have in reconciling others of your brothers and sisters to the religious truths that have penetrated your heart. Well, however you got to be the way you are, I don’t really care. The fact is you are making this world a little better place, so keep it up. And thanks. This secular humanist appreciates it.

  7. Lisa, I think you hit the nail on the head with the differences in our anthropologies.

    I believe the old Quaker saying “that of God in everyone.” There is the Light of Christ that works through all people, urging them toward himself – reconcilation and redemption.

    Your starting point is much different, and I understand and respect your position – especially since we may likely come up to similar conclusions to issues in the world.

    I have to be honest I don’t expect to ever say anything on this blog that will change your mind. I do hope to give you a glimpse of what Jesus’ project might look like if it was taken seriously in the world. Well, behind printed text and pictures anyways.

    This is the disadvantage to blogs – witness ultimately comes out to what is lived out in the community. My words here on this site, will never make total sense unless you know the rest of my story, and see how I practice being a Christian on a regular basis. Plus my personal charm tends to win people over more easily than my clumsy writing! 🙂

    Anyways — I hope you stick around here and continue to make your voice, thoughts and concerns heard. You are thoughtful, charitable, and intelligent, every commuity benefits from people like that.

    I, and the majority of the community here at ‘gathering in light,’ are open to criticisms as well as inspirations from people with “competing narratives.” Thus the name. We do not have the corner markert on God – the Spirit does what it wills – nor do we want to make anyone think that we do.

    I hope that you, as well as the rest of us, will find something useful to your journey through this all as we all learn from each other.

  8. Qoute;
    Ironically, when Jesus was on the cross it was because he was subverting the powers, calling them into question, he was a threat to the Roman government and that is why he died an “insurrectionist’s??? death.

    Unqoute.

    This statement is in err.
    Pilot wanted to release Jesus, even going so far as to try to free him. He washed his hands of the matter…wanted nothing to do with the death of Jesus. He told the religious leaders, “his blood is on your hands”.
    It was the religious leaders that hated him and wanted him to die.

  9. If he wanted nothing to do with it then why did he go through with it? The Roman’s hated the Pharisees and hated to bother with their petty disputes, in fact this is why Jesus passed around so much, nobody wanted to deal with the Jew’s problems. Pilot didn’t answer to the Jews at all, remember the Jews were being occupied so don’t think that Pilot wanted nothing to do with this, if not he wouldn’t have done it.

  10. Wess – I think it’s fair to say that Palestine was a tinderbox of political intrigue during the time of Christ. The Israeli / Zealot insurgency was a very real problem that Rome took so seriously that, after attempting to manage things politically through decisions like Jesus’ crucifixion, they dealt with it by destroying the Temple and murdering the people in 70 AD. Pilot probably wanted to pacify the Jews because he understood the dangerous undercurrents in the society at the time and wanted to avoid bringing the conflict to a head. It was in Pilot’s own interest to maintain the status quo.

    I’ve always been amazed that Pilot didn’t have Jesus killed for having employed in his inner-circle a known terrorist, Simon the Zealot. And I’m sure more than a few Jews were happy to see someone who broke bread regularly with the likes of a Roman strong-man, Matthew, put to death.

    My point in all of this is that Jesus was culturally subversive on a massive scale – embracing, loving and healing both terrorists and political lackeys and showing that nationalism has no place in the Kingdom of God. His death came not because of a violent coup-detat, but rather because of a quieter, subtler subversion that made no alliances with any nation and that directly threatened both the Romans and the Jews’ strangehold on the hearts and minds of the people of Palestine.

    The question becomes… If we really are following Christ, are we willing to do the same in our “synagogues” and “public places?” Can we stand up in our churches and places of employment and embrace both the terrorist and the ditto-head, taking them both by the hand and showing them that the Kingdom of God belongs to the meek, the infirmed, the poor and the the poor of spirit, and not the powerful or violent?

  11. Chris – that’s great insight and you are absolutely right about Pilot wanting to keep the status quo. I do think that Jesus was understood to be an insurrectionist, someone who would disrupte the peace, someone who ran with the wrong crowd, threatened the temple politics, and was declaring his own political society where he’d be king – and the Jews knew this and that’s why they wanted Jesus killed. You’re right to point out it wasn’t that Pilot didn’t care what the Jews thought, he did, he wanted to keep the peace, and he knew that if he let Jesus stick around there would be a big problem.

    It’s an interesting point you bring up about Simon and Matthew, something I’ve not thought much about. It is interesting that he didn’t take more heat for that though.

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