Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Imperial Church

In preparing for my upcoming Seminary class of Christian History, I've been reading a lot of texts about the Church in the period following Constantine's nominal conversion and adoption of Christianity as effectively the state religion in 313. Meanwhile, this week, footage has been inescapable of former President Ford's death and the pomp and ceremony made of his funerary services, and I am given a frighteningly real-life picture of what the Imperial Church looked (looks) like. (And I can feel myself wanting to pin my own 95 theses on the National Cathedral's door.)

With the Emperor Constantine I, the Christian faith went immediately from being the persecuted to being the persecutor, from the fringe to being the pole around which state policy revolved. Actually, the latter isn't so true. A more accurate description would be that Christianity became wedded to the throne - the Emperor's interests became (gradually even by definition) the Church's. A later Emperor would even claim - compellingly - that alongside scripture and tradition, his will was a canon law for the church. And the Church obeyed.

The years following the entrenchment of the Church with power and wealth, establishing perpetual and mutual entrenchment in the powers of the state, were horrific from my perspective. Popes and bishops vied for power, led armies, ordered deaths and torture, led intrigues, excommunicated and executed competitors for prestigious positions, hoarded wealth and luxury while millions starved and froze. This has gone on for almost 1,700 years!

And while "the Church" is no longer one global unity, neither is the Empire - and we see the Church wherever it is, cozying up to persons and positions of power and prestige. No matter how violence, how impoverishing, how arrogant and selfish a ruler is, there is some rich bishop ready to heap on laud and praise. In fact, that's his job. It is, after all, the National Cathedral. In more than name it is beholden to the Powers, serves the Powers, allows the Powers a patina of holiness and redemption, while bringing no meaningful (prophetic) critique or insight. Laud and praise; laud and praise.

Christianity began as a movement among dis-empowered people, living in an occupied country, routinely exploited, abused, enslaved and slaughtered at the whim of the Empire. Jesus was executed, we must remember, not by anarchists or atheists or revolutionaries. He was executed by the collusion of church and state, by the connivance of religious "leaders" who were more concerned with pleasing the powerful than speaking the truth, by the conspiracy of those who would blur the line between devotion to God and devotion to Emperor. And Jesus is being crucified all over again.

Does Gerald Ford deserve all this venom? Not particularly. Among the presidents he wasn't the worst - didn't kill nearly as many people as did presidents before and after him, didn't drive into poverty more people than other presidents, didn't enrich the rich or consolidate power or dis-empower the common people more than others who have held that revered post. (Honestly, our present Bush assures most presidents the claim of not being the worst president in history.) And funerals and mourning are not an appropriate time to lay out the crimes of someone's life. (Although it seems we do not grant this sympathy to our enemies, one of whose death just a few days ago was greeted unanimously with a recounting of his crimes.)

But neither does this death deserve all the accolades and national praise that we find now bestowed upon it. This death, as with all deaths of kings while their dynasty is still in power, is treated as a national day of mourning - telling us that we should feel some part of this loss, that we have owed something of value to that life, that we as a nation or as a mass of individuals have indeed been injured by his death. Do not mock us like this! Few people have given Ford a thought these past many years, and in a week no one will be thinking of him again. Leave the grieving and loss to those who genuinely feel it; respect it by not nationalizing it, let Ford die just a man beloved by those nearest him.

By nationalizing Ford's death, the Powers mean to make sacred his deeds (all his deeds) and his office (and by association, all those who occupy it). And the Church, offering its services of making-holy, venerates horrific things that necessitate answering. Even if Ford's presidency was a golden age of love and generosity and equality, embodying all the gospel values (not that "prosperity" is not in the list), the Church should still not serve the Powers' strategies to nationalize a personal sorrow. To do so subverts the autonomy of the Church, disintegrates the position of the Church as a voice that speaks for God and God alone. When Church serves the Powers, it declares tragically that the god it serves is in fact the Emperor. When the cross marches alongside the flag, faithfulness is put in jeopardy.

That is the lesson I take away from those first 1,694 years of the Church, captive to the service and will of Empire. It seems as a community we still have not recovered the lost voice of the One we lift up in ceremony and song and claim to honor.

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