Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jesus and Constantine

Politics, religion, Jesus, empire, and other tidbits have been on my mind. My poor congregation suffers when that happens as I talk about it. This is my October newsletter editorial. Please correct all heresies.

Dear Friends,

In the year 312 CE, Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, faced a battle at the Milvian Bridge. According to legend, Constantine had a vision of Christ who said to him, “Under this sign conquer.” The sign was the Christian cross. Constantine had the cross painted on his soldiers’ shields and won the battle. Constantine embraced Christianity and legalized its worship the following year. Under his direction, he united Christianity under one creed and thus began the 1700 year - and counting - marriage between Christianity and Empire.

Constantine knew politics and people. He knew good medicine when he saw it. He knew that religious officials hungry for status and power would fall into place. They did. Christianity has proven to be good medicine for empire-building and for war. Even though Christianity has split into various factions and our nation’s founders shed blood to separate the state from the influence of the church, the Christian mythos is stronger than ever in this country. In the past several decades the marriage between Christianity and Empire has strengthened. Our presidential candidates feel obliged to undergo religious litmus tests, and the mantra ”America is a Christian Nation” has captured the popular imagination.

The Christianity that gained ascendancy under the guidance of Constantine became known as "orthodoxy.” This version of Christianity is in the opinion of many scholars of Christian origins to be far removed from Jesus of Nazareth and the movements that started around his vision.

To put it simply, the Jesus who confronted Constantine at the Milvian Bridge and the Jesus of the Gospels who charged his followers to love their enemies are two completely different figures. How did Jesus the Prince of Peace become the Prince of War? How did Jesus who was crucified by Empire become its divine champion? How did Jesus, the wise sage, who invited us to trust and to share the bounty of Earth, become the spokesperson for Empire’s exploitation of people and of Earth’s resources? How did people become so duped into believing that, in order to follow Jesus they should blindly follow Empire in this life in exchange for a heavenly afterlife?

As we finish reading the Bible cover to cover, we are going to explore some of these early Jesus movements. I think we will find that these various movements offered visions and commitments that were in opposition to and resisted Empire.

For me, this is not a matter of historical interest or theological speculation alone. We know that we are in a critical time. Thinkers like Thomas Berry are telling us that we need a vision of human life that regards Earth and Earth-keeping as a sacred calling. Empire building, war-making, exploitation of people and resources, and reliance on written creeds and scriptures for our sense of the sacred will not move us to “a mutually enhancing mode of human-Earth relations” (Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, p. 22).

Christians need to meet Jesus again. Perhaps we can re-discover and become inspired by a Jesus who invites us back to Earth.


OK, let me anticipate one correction at least. When I use the word "orthodoxy" I don't mean to criticize whatever beliefs are subsumed under that name for people. Many folks claim the label orthodox and I accept them and whatever they mean by it and whatever beliefs they have associated with it. I think of myself as orthodox when I define the term to my liking.

My issue is with the power relations surrounding that label. I personally think we should do away with the whole concept and go with what I think my pal Paul was talking about:

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer orthodox or heretic; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28 --revised)

Question for discussion: Did Constantine distort the message of Jesus or did he embrace it?


  1. This is a valuable and challenging question.

    In the end, I would come down on the side of distort.

    However I do think that it was because of Constantine's "embrace" if you will, of Christianity, that it spread as it did and that means with the good parts.

    Isn't that always the rub, the dualism exposed? How do we separate chaff from grain? The good from the evil? I guess for me, Jesus is the very response to polarized, dualistic messages.

    And yet Christianity, such as it is, often creates those messages.

    Ultimately, I find it hard to believe that Jesus would promote war as Constantine's history would suggest... so that puts me in the distort column at the end.

    This is a great and very thought provoking post.

    Frankly, in the end, I blame Theodosius!

  2. I have always found it interesting that this "wily coyote" did not embrace Christianity until he was on his deathbed. I think perhaps he was just "hedging his bets." Anyway,"C" did more to destroy the original premise of Christianity than any other person. And that story about his mother going about the Holy Land identifying places.... quite a new addition to the myth of Christianity. Just goes to show what happens when you let government in on something.

  3. “Did Constantine distort the message of Jesus or did he embrace it?”

    I’d say neither. It suited his purposes, One God. One Emperor. One Empire. One good thing in the post-modern world is that Christianity has been disestablished in the West. It is an opportunity to find our way home.

    I found no heresies.

    John M

  4. One God. One Emperor. One Empire

    That's it. Constantine didn't give a hoot about the theological quibbles. He couldn't stand the diversity of views. He needed a united Christianity. Let the bishops fight it out at Nicaea and the Empire will give the winner the establishment. In turn, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church will give the Empire soldiers for its battles and its pious blessing.

  5. Were entering Dominic Crossan territory aren't we? I really need to buy some of his books - I like this look at history and the rise of Christianity - it's a fine critique.

  6. This is where I think Crossan is at his best, doin' it to the empire.

  7. I don't think Constantine's "conversion" was quite so clearcut or calculating. He was one of many with similar notions, all of them tied up in their own time.

  8. Thanks, Gentleexit. Welcome. Nice website.