Emperor Constantine And the Conservative Case For Reparations

Metropolitan Museum of Art # 26.229 Photograph...

Metropolitan Museum of Art # 26.229 Photographer: Katie Chao (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One really doesn’t have to go far to see what political talking heads have done with the issue of reparations for enslaving Africans, making it a race-baiting issue, since no one is talking about it but idjits like Rush Limbaugh. I mean when I was in undergrad, and I did research on the issue to find out what people were saying, there was literally a dearth of resources on both sides about reparations and African enslavement. Maybe perhaps some people want to move on from the Civil War but certain unnamed PaleoConfederates keep bringing it up?

Any how, I am reading Peter Leithart‘s rereading of Emperor Constantine’s history and impact, Defending Constantine. At church, when I introduced a few ideas from this book, I was accused of siding with Constantine to the point of almost laudatory praise. Just proof to me that I am trying to give Constantine and Leithart a fair hearing. As I was thinking about Constantine, I noticed that conservative Christians in the USA claim Athanasius of Alexandria (for his doctrine) and Constantine (for his political triumphs) alike, even though the two men were enemies in their life times. In Defending Constantine, in Leithart’s chapter in debunking the myth of the “great” Edict of Milan (the big event of tolerance for Christians), Leithart mentioned what separated Constantine’s reign from that of his rival & brother in law Licinius was that Constantine (who Leithart calls “the Christian Constantine” time and again) redistributed wealth among the Eastern and Western people. How? By intervening in the economics of his day, Constantine used his political authority to order the properties of churches and Christians to be restored. “Even those who had received church properties as gifts from another party must return them to the Christians.” I just wonder how much this contradicted the Roman pagan legal tradition of private property rights.

If one is to follow this mythology of persecution, and follow the way of Constantine, and under Constantine, it was Christians who have lost property to receive restitution, then would not one who claims Constantine to be a hero in the Church’s history advocate for perhaps another group of Christians who had lost their property and their rights? No, I am not trying to essentialize the enslaved Black population as all Christian, but the precedent of Constantine has been set. Why do we have to pick the worst of his example as Roger Olson points out, his violence? But then again, I share the ambivalence, even antipathy for the idea of reparations as a whole, since you can’t fix a price on what was lost, but some sort of Truth and Reconciliation commission would be enough for me personally.

The fear of reparations but the endorsement of Faith-Based Initiatives (the government giving funds to religious organizations) is a rather strange way of continuing the economics of Constantine’s legacy. FBI forces the church to compromise its values with the state, to let the state define its role. I believe in the separation of church in state because just as God does not favor people, so should the state not favor one religious organization over the other. Constantine and Athanasius represent two types of Christianity that we all have to struggle with. Constantine and the Christian empire/dominionist tradition that Leithart favors is obsessed maintaining power over others (coercion). The faith of Clement & Athansius of Alexandria, W.E.B DuBois, and John Howard Yoder offers a different way of being & doing in the world, that of living on the margins of exile, and pointing to the Logos as our Teacher & Prince of peace.

Choose ye this day which one you will follow.

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  1. Pingback: Race-ing Toward Nicea part 2: Constantine, DuBois, & Lynching | Political Jesus

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