Tag Archives: Emperor Constantine

Christian Politics From The Underside

Last week, Senator Ted Cruz (TX) announced his candidacy for president. A lot of the members of the media were freaking out because Cruz was filmed “preaching to the choir” so to speak at Liberty University.  While peers and colleagues displayed shock, at the utter terror of yet another Texas theocrat in the White House, as for me, I shrugged it off; it’s just what I am used to here in the Lone Star State. There have been a number of columns and think pieces out there that have scrutinized Cruz’s every words, so I won’t repeat what’s already been said. Instead, I just wanted to place this particular essay in context, the anxiousness of liberals, conservatives, and apolitical concerning the fragility of the U.S. American political arrangement. It is fragile in that this particular social contract, the U.S. Constitution is exists as a contested reality.  As a governing, human-made instrument, it, the U.S. Constitution is a living document in need of updating from time to time at the minimum, and at the maximum perhaps its utter annihilation which the document itself points toward as a possibility.

I do not wish to discuss Ted Cruz as a politician any more than I have to, but to briefly go back to refer to him as a symbol, in both the media’s fear-mongering as well as many Christians’ uncritical reception of his Tea Party politics is something to be less than desired. Cruz, if I may take a metaphor from Nerd culture (Scott Pilgrim Versus The World), represents our American past; his candidacy is a symbol of America’s League of Evil Exes, each unique and bringing their own history of political disasters.

#1. The Very Thin Line Between Church and State: Of all the Exes that haunt the U.S. the most, perhaps the biggest scare crow that we see used in the media and even in Christian circles is the Church-state separation. The Founders were a religiously diverse group of Deists, Free Masons, Unitarians, and Protestants. Part of their common experience as white men under the tyranny of Great Britain is the King serving as both political leader and Defender of The Faith. The Founders took a quite ambiguous stance on religious freedom, opting to allow the states to do as they pleased (a few states had state religions) while the Union as a whole disallowed for such a thing. At the same time, enslaved Africans were denied religious freedom, the freedom to assemble, and other rights as such that were granted to them the Creator.

#2. Fundamentalism: There have been a number of comparisons of Ted Cruz with the campaign of Pat Robertson in 1988. Many religious conservatives will inevitably bring about this charge. Pat Robertson is portrayed on his worst as that looming figure of cultural backwardness that white moderates wish to escape. Pat Robertson losing in the primaries is seen as a political failure to some, given that short-sighted analyses of politics sees it only as a win-win, sum zero game. However, failed attempts to fly can galvanize political bases (in this instance, conservative evangelicals) and since everyone loves a loser, some  can turn what seems like a moment of defeat into a defining moment of prestige. Robertson’s 700 Club remained successful, and grew in the 90’s and continues on today

#3. Texas. Perhaps it’s the fact that Texas has such great weather or so so so many megachurches here, but the national media’s fascination with Texas as exotic gets annoying. Texas gets vilified as the home to the worst elements of what extremist right wing politics has to offer, and never gets any credit for having had an abolitionist leaning president at its founding or the home of the late Barbara Jordan.

#4. Corporate Greed : Many politicians have been exposed as the puppets of the Koch brothers, and yes everything is terrible. The country was founded on first and foremost the economic interests of white male land-owners. Oligarchy is as American as baseball.

#5. The Irrelevancy Of Church History, American or Otherwise: At the center of contemporary debates on Christian involvement in politics, many Christians have made the Roman Emperor Constantine the Girardian scapegoat for making Christian imperialism possible. One such post was featured by a guest on Kurt Willem’s Pangea Blog on Patheos. While the post made the point of making Christian politics a matter of Christology, a matter I plan to attend to shortly in this piece, I want to take issue with NeoAnabaptists pointing the finger at Constantine. Philosopher Cornel West is also guilty of using the category of Constantinian Christianity in his work too, especially in Democracy Matters: Winning The Fight Against Imperialism. There are a couple of problems with naming Constantine and this “Constantinization” of Christianity. First of all, if we go by the historical records, Constantine did not convert to Christianity until a little while before his death. He is not an example of a Christian ruler, for a Christian needs to be a part of a community of faith, living a life of discipleship. This gets me to my other point: it is more likely that modern USian Christians in politics are looking to Robert E Lee, Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon as their models rather than Constantine. Can one honestly look at World History, let alone, Church History, and say that Constantine was coercing Christ-followers within the early Church to follow him? We like to imagine that the early church was this nice, pure, hegemonic (ideologically) body which did not struggle with issues such as violence and political engagement. The fact is, the reason why Church fathers such as the apostle Paul and Tertullian were writing letters were because their fellow Christians had to be persuaded of their positions; we just do not have access to all of the early Christian literature do to them getting lost or burned in some purging. Blaming Constantine is popular and may seem insightful, but it’s just not rational in the US context.

*editor’s note: keep a look out for a forthcoming essay to address Christianity, political movements, and political orders, “The Politics Of The Holy Spirit.”

#6. Race: The very last of America’s League of Evil Exes, and the leader very much like Gideon in SPVTW is the history of American racism. Every time you hear someone ask, “Where are the Birthers asking for Cruz’s birth certificate” There is RACE. Every time Cruz discusses his proposals for “border security” coded with racist dogwhistles. There is RACE. When one looks at the fact that just something over 600,000 people voted for Ted Cruz, you can be sure: there is RACE.

In many reflections about the political life of Christians in the U.S., members of the dominant culture will find a myriad of ways to avoid discussions of race. They may come up with the general sense of loss they feel concerning the culture wars with the sexual revolution as the reason behind the fall of Western civilization. Or perhaps it is the fault of MTV, moral relativism, and John Locke? John Stuart Mill? Any number of Enlightenment philosophers? In post-Christendom Christianity, there are sincere groups of believers who want The Church get back to an evangelical or Catholic or Anglican or Mormon conservative version of Christianity. Within these claims of historic orthodoxy, there is a certain identity politics of exclusion involved. Who we imagine in the past as orthodox and faithful determines who we determine in the present as faith-less and reprobate. It is no coincidence that there is a current Renaissance of slave-holding Jonathan Edwards and his hyper-Calvinism. Claims to historic orthodoxy in the U.S. American context is used as a marker of Western Gentile cultural hubris. This artificial quest in the USA for evangelical protestants to be “orthodox” is in all probability an overcompensation for being brought up in an overdeterming, heresiological reality: RACE.

*editor’s note: I plan on expanding on this idea of orthodoxy, heresy, and racial identity in a forthcoming essay, “Historic Orthodoxy and Symbolic Blackness” *

One such examples is the aforementioned article from Pangea blog is a case in point when it comes to persons striving for private possession of classic Christianity and its spirit. The argument is that it is Constantine’s low, Arian Christology that leads to his belief in his own violent, gory lordship. As I mentioned before, this line of argumentation can only be held as true if it is based on the pretense that Constantine was a disciple prior to his death-bed baptism. Unless NeoAnabaptists can show evidence other than the fact that Constantine did a few favors for early Christian communities (Constantine also gave state benefits to non-Christian religions as well), there is no reason to assume that the Emperor can be considered a model for Christian politicians and activists. To the contrary, what we are left with is being emplaced on this soil within a history of displacement: settler colonialism and enslaved African persons, and the political traditions of majoritarian politics. Majoritarian politics as I have argued once before is the zero-sum game between at least two political factions. The thing about majoritarian political structures is that they are built in such a what to keep the majority population, the dominant culture, in power. Critical Race theory as common sense should inform us as such. The trap of idolizing majorities rather than pluralities and consensus renders us incapable of seeing other political possibilities. The so-called “orthodox” even in retreat have consumed a failure of theo-political imagination as they are incapable of transcending the prevailing political system.

It is quite inadequate for Christian thinkers to point backwards to the early Christological debates and Constantine. What that sort of rhetoric does is derail discussions about concrete political realities into abstract conversations that have for the most part been settled through Ecumenical Councils. This brand of derailing in the name of Christological orthodoxy permits Christians from experiencing genuine lament and repenting of past and current social sins. Appropriating the work of Juergen Moltmann, this Christology is also a refusal to dialogue with Jesus’ Jewishness while shaping Christ in the image of the Occident. A Christology that is in dialogue with Judaism is most likely to be a Christology that is politically engaged, one that is centered on being de-centered by our Neighbor and oriented towards the Outsider.

Inward-looking libertarians and NeoAnabaptists alike are living out a problematic, escapist fantasy, of moving towards some 21st century form of monasticism: that is, Christians from the dominant culture understand Christian participation in politics as one of wielding influence in the political order. This current order however is built off of the backs of enslaved Blacks and over the dead bodies of First Nations. This order would not be possible without genocide, rape culture, and anti-Black racism. The Sexual Revolution did not find its way in the libertine youth culture of the 1960’s; it has its roots in the subjugation and sexual exploitation of People of Color.

Constructive proposals for improving the body politics must do more than just blaming the Baptists (I am looking at you, Rod Dreher) for society’s ills. James Cone argues in Black Theology And Black Power that just as alien forces can possess human beings to lift up evil racist structures, so too does the Triune God inspire human beings to resist evil: “there is only one response: fight it!” This calls for Christians to transition from discussions of Christology to a politicized Pneumatology. The Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity is of the utmost importance to Christian political thought. We must join M. Shawn Copeland in understanding tradition as “that one who yearns to incarnate Tradition in daily living and to witness to and struggle for its transforming power for in the world.” So for Copeland, the Holy Spirit, in other words, was meant and is meant for the Body. Embodied praxis is the Spirit’s mission. This is why the practice of Baptism by Immersion points to our reality as citizens of the New Creation, a political society consummated by the Seven-Fold Spirit of Creation. Faithful social justice warriors seek to live into a baptismal reality, being immersed in the love of Three Equal Persons perichoretically sharing in each others’ life in mutuality. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we receive the traditions of the One, Holy Apostolic, Catholic Church in faith as a gift of divine providence. Because only the Church can incarnate universal love as the presence of Christ here on Earth, all claims of Whiteness’ universality must be invalidated as false, and must be resisted. With the early Black Christians on these shores we sing, “Did not my LORD deliver Daniel?,” and with our Black Catholic sisters and brothers, we can whisper, “Didn’t my church canonize Perpetua?”

Photo description: drawing of “Ted Cruz: The Crusade Begins” by Mike Licht; Ted Cruz as an Early Church Icon, with a red, white and blue tea kettle for the Tea party

Race-ing Toward Nicea part 2: Constantine, DuBois, & Lynching

                                                                                                                                    Whither, Eusebius of Caesarea?

For part one see: Race-ing Towards Nicea part 1: The Incarnation

I am continuing to wrestle with Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Simultaneously I am working through James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree and today I would like to present a potential inter-textual reading of both works.

In Defending Constantine (Chapter 10 “Justice For All”), Peter Leithart goes through the nitty gritty details of Constantine’s views on justice as well as his executive decisions when it came creating laws. Among some of his peculiarities was Constantine’s contention, much like Liberation Theology, that justice must be served to the oppressed. In those days, the Roman court system was oppressive and heavily biased towards the rich and powerful. Some of Constantine’s laws worked against this. In addition, Constantine outlawed crucifixions. The theological imagination for the secular philosopher/emperor Constantine was attracted to Christianity, and in that move, ended a murderous practice. However, Constantine still kept capital punishment itself around; Leithart just notes that Constantine just found more “creative” ways of executing criminals.

Torture and gory body-policing activities sponsored by the state such as the cutting off of thieves’ hands were acceptable Constantinian practices. Back then, these were social norms. It was expected that Constantine not to be able to transcend his cultural milieu. Like the Christian realists of the mid-20th century and even today, Constantine achieved what they would consider a “proximate justice.” The death penalty was such the norm back then that Constantine joked with Arius that the Emperor considered Arius and his fellow dissidents to be “gallows rogues,” or persons who found ways, time and again from being hung from the gallows ala Mordecai in the Book of Esther.

One interesting move that Leithart makes (as part of his larger Dominionist agenda in looking at the theological & social conservativism of the Global South) is to point out the African context from which the Donatist and Arian cotnroversies arose. In both instances, Christian bishops INVITED Emperor Constantine to help resolve these disputes. In the case of the Donatists, property rights were at stake. Radical Libyan Christians who took an uncompromising stance against bishops and laity who gave in to Roman persecution by denying Jesus as their Savior to save their own hides. The conflicts were so intense that Donatists were sometimes murdered for their beliefs. Appealing to political powers that be (an outside third-party) seemed to be the realistic approach to these issues.

James Cone’s The Cross And The Lynching Tree is written at the intersections of atonement theory, theodicy, and the struggle against White Supremacy. As Cone is making his argument in favor of USian Christians looking at the Cross through the history of the lynching tree, he notes that it was poets and artists during the Harlem Renaissance that first made the connection. Jim and Jane Crow was institutional, legal white supremacy maintained by placing black bodies on the gallows. One such writer, novelist and Christian scholar was W.E.B. DuBois DuBois’ Christian anti-racist imagination enabled him to use theological imagery to work to dismantle White Supremacy. Lacing his Christian prayers with appeals to the Prince of Peace, commenting on the race riots started by White Supremacists by referring to the book of Psalms, DuBois lived as an example of liberating Christian orthopraxis.

A few years ago in seminary, a group of African American students (including myself) protested against the injustices done to the Jena Six. The Jena Six situation was a high school fight started because someone hung a noose around the tree where the white kids usually sit. Under the murderous threat from the history of imperialist, racist KKKristianity which includes Emperor Constantine who himself had threatened an African man (as a joke) with lynching, the black high schoolers had little choice but to STAND THEIR GROUND.

No one can do an honest assessment of the Nicene-Chalcedon tradition without acknowledging its enforcement through, at minimum, the threat of violence (i.e., the anathemas and damnations and exiles etc.).  However, the Nicene-Chalcedonian formulas are not beyond the liberating grasp of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, Nicea & Chalcedon & the Apostles’ Creeds are are important to the extent that they remind  us Gentile Christians of our metanarrative that we find in Scripture, and that our stories are not our own, and that THE story is not about us. Tradition (with a capitol T) ideally should be used to keep our nationalistic desires in check, but when it fails to do so, history and Scripture witnesses to the fact that God uses outsiders, the rejects to prophesy deliverance to the Body of Christ.

No one represents this moreso than the the U.S. American prophet W.E.B. DuBois.  Living in the 20th century context where white Christians could recite the Creeds by rote memory, and then in the very next breathe, call a black person n*gger before lynching her, W.E.B. Dubois embodied Nicene-Chalcedonian orthopraxis as a testimony to Jesus Christ Our LORD and Liberator. In his essay, “The Gospel According To Mary Brown,” Dubois writes the Gospel narratives for his time, with a mulatto man portraying Jesus. Joshua is lynched because of his message of peace and anti-White Supremacy. As his mother Mary is found weeping, Joshua appeared to her, with his hair shining, white clothes (biblical language for holiness of the martyrs), “for his voice was the Voice of God.” When Mary asked where did Joshua go, Joshua tells her, “I was crucified, dead, and buried. I descended into Hell. On the third day, I rose from the dead. I ascended into Heaven and sit on the right hand of my Father, from whence I shall come to judge the Quick and the Dead.”

In an earlier post, I was mistaken to suggest that Constantine and Athanasius represent two different kinds of Christianity. It would be better for me to have said that Eusebius of Caesarea and the bishops and presbyters that made room for the devil by inviting Constantine to the table represent the imperial version of Christianity, the one where the nation-states’ story matters more than the Resurrection itself.

Eusebius and Athanasius represent two types of Christianity that we all have to struggle with. Eusebius and the Christian empire/dominionist tradition that Leithart favors is obsessed maintaining power over others (coercion, violence, war, white supremacy, lynching). The Nicene-Chalcedonian orthopraxis of Clement & Athansius of Alexandria and W.E.B DuBois 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.

Other posts of interests:

Nestorianism Returns: Tea Party Politics vs Hypostatic Unity

Book Review: W.E.B. DuBois: American Prophet

Emperor Constantine and the Conservative Case for Reparations

Solidarity Over Charity: Social Justice Christianity 101

English: "Social Justice," founded b...

English: “Social Justice,” founded by Father Coughlin, sold on important street corners and intersections. New York City Medium: 1 negative: nitrate; 2 1/4 × 2 1/4 inches or smaller. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

THIS IS MY CONTRIBUTION TO THE DESPISED ONES SYNCHROBLOG: solidarity, social justice, and the American Dream!

Perhaps one of the hot topics last week was the issue of Christianity and social justice. Its an underlying issue on when it comes to the definition of what it means to be an evangelical. Aside from Rachel Held Evans and her critics, evangelical Christian Professor Roger Olson posted his beliefs the other day, defining why he is an evangelical: Why and How I am a Confessing Evangelical: A Response to Al Mohler. Mohler is a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, to give this some context, and some SBC leaders (not all), have a habit of playing gatekeepers of who is in and who is out, while ignoring the importance of nuance and context. At the same time, I agree with some thinkers like Denny Burke, that it is important to set boundaries. Unlike C.S. Lewis, I do not believe in “secret Christians” where we can look at our neighbors and friends who haven’t believed on Jesus and call what they do Christianity. I think that is a disservice to our neighbors first and foremost, and for anyone who does hold that view, I see it as a colonizing gaze imposing ourselves on that person’s practices. It may seem like a compliment, but it is condescending at best, imperialist at worst.

My purpose today is to start a conversation about what Social Justice Christianity is for BOTH those who are unfamiliar as well as those who THINK they know but really don’t and resort to all sorts of false assumptions. For starters, I have qualms with the terms social justice, it does have it’s use, but it has become a catch all phrase for anyone who wants to take up a cause. It’s too general and abstract of a term, and so I like to turn to particularity (as I normally do), and prefer the term Christian Justice, since this is the position where I stand. Under the umbrella of Christian Justice, I am also committed to economic,racial, and gender justice. I do not have the usual liberal progressive conversion story where one is raised as a white evangelical/fundamentalist, goes to college or some trip, and then has an experience where they start on the road to Social Justice Christianity/Justice-Oriented Christianity. No, from a young age, I believe 3 or 4, it was in the living with my brother that we learned from our mother the Sermon on the Mount, as well as Jesus’ command which he said was the greatest of all the of the commandments, as well as the summary of the entire Law (the 10 Commandments and the first 5 books of the Bible).

The Great Commandment is this:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”– Matthew 22:37-40 NIV

I was baptized in a black Southern Baptist Church that did not have anything to say about social issues, so it was primarily from home that I learned about the Resurrection of Christ, the Second Coming, and Jesus’ ministry to the poor and oppressed. No where in Scripture or in Jesus’ life does it require Christians to be beholden to ancient Creeds. In fact, the one creed we are obligated to follow first and foremost is the Great Commandment, which flows from the Jewish Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

For more on that, I would highly recommend Scot McKnight’s The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others.

For Christians, our Rabbi and Messiah Jesus of Nazareth added the Shema with a passage from Leviticus 19:18, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” to teach us what the Law was all about. If Jesus is the Savior and Messiah of our religion as Christianity teaches, he is the final authority, and not those who pretend to speak of some religious orthodoxy. The Great Commandment comes first, and all else comes second, and when other things (yes, even creeds and practices), fall short of the Great Commandment, then they must be confronted and even dispersed with. Some Christians claim that our actions mean nothing, and hold to their Enlightenment view of truth as being propositional in nature, but they still fall short, because Jesus said He is the truth in the face of his oppressor, Pontius Pilate.

Now as for the creeds and formulas of the early Church prior to the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, I do affirm many of them, in so far as they affirm the Great Commandment and the One who taught it, Christ Jesus. Justice-oriented Christianity has a startling message: that God who is Invisible, took up a body (the Incarnation) and has a unique concern for the arrangement of human bodies (politics + economics). This Divinity is not the laizze-fairre pagan construct of Adam Smith who relied more on Greek philosophy than Christian theology; this very God is YHWH of the Old Testament, the God of Resurrection and Life. If we can make a claim about what Scripture says about God, it is this: that there is no passage that indicates that God is apathetic to social arrangements of humanity. There are a litany of verses that proclaim God’s love for the poor, the widows, and the foreigners, more than any of the “problematic” violent passages, more than anything about sexuality or ethnicity.

One of the most prominent words in the New Testament is “household,” and for our 21st century, Western ears and eyes, we can only think of a house, with a nuclear family of husband and wife, and children. Not so fast my friends. The Greek term that is translated to “household” is oikonomia, and with that comes notions of managing social arrangements. In the case of Christianity, the primary director of God’s household is the Resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has shown us that God has intimate knowledge and experience in being a member of oppressed peoples. Suffering is not beneath God, it is not some act of charity made from the standpoint of distance. This is solidarity, oneness with the victims of history. Let me repeat: this is not sympathy, this is NOT charity: this is compassion, with acts of solidarity. Having solidarity with and listening to the poor are things that US Christians have a hard time learning because we have been taught in church only about “CHARITY,” with charity being an act on our part, an act of privilege more precisely. I can use as an example the negative reactions to my posts on Hope For Haiti and solidarity So, I would argue that a Justice-Oriented Christianity is one that teaches the supremacy of SOLIDARITY over and against charity.

The emphasis on solidarity should lead reasonably to the other marker of Justice-Oriented Christianity, a celebration of difference over commitments to sameness. By being committed to solidarity, Justice-oriented Christians recognize the different positions and contexts they find themselves. Joerg Reiger, one of my favorite writers, likes to say that “context is what hurts.” Liberal and conservative (primarily white) Christians like to proclaim their pride in being “colorblind.” Colorblindness is a problematic method to begin with, because those who talk about color-blindness, are the ones who ALWAYS dismiss the experiences of People of Color. If a POC protests or suggests that what a person does or says is racially problematic, or tries to articulate the notion that race is A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT rather than any biological truth, “The Colorblind” in every instance (generally) will call POC “angry” as if “angry” is an insult to begin with. Colorblindness is a popular defense for racist practices and actions that both members of the left and right love to employ.

Fortunately, for Justice-Oriented Christians, we worship the Triune God who delights in difference. Dogs are born naturally color-blind but they can still discriminate abour which persons to bark at based on whoever has a darker hue. The Creator, however, made all of humanity in God’s infinite image. Everyone is created of immeasureable value, and this sacred worth can not be measured on a scale of “cultural hierarchies” or social classifications (especially race and class). Christian antiracism begins and ends with the Imago Dei, the very antithesis of racist masks such as colorblindness.

In sum, I have taken a different approach to making a case for Christian Justice. Rather than the typical white liberal/progressive talking point of discussing Jesus’ teachings, I point to the centrality of the Incarnation and Resurrection (Jesus’s sovereignty) that are complimented by what Christ taught. I hope to comeback to a discussion of the ancient creeds later this summer, and their relation to Christian justice. But, for now, the two markers of Justice-Oriented Christianity : celebration of difference and solidarity, reflect the paradox of the Church: joy and suffering, the Resurrection and the Cross.

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