Friday, June 24, 2016

The Long Shadow of Empire

We often live with the decisions of generations prior to our own, either working out the consequences or reaping the benefits. There is rarely a moment where we can claim something unique is happening here - we are all one sequence in the continuity of cultural-historical stream.

"soli Deo salvatori nostro per Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum gloria magnificentia imperium et potestas ante omne saeculum et nunc et in omnia saecula amen."

With this translation of "μόνῳ θεῷ σωτῆρι ἡμῶν διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν δόξα μεγαλωσύνη κράτος καὶ ἐξουσία πρὸ παντὸς τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ νῦν καὶ εἰς πάντας τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν." Christianity's understanding of itself in relation to the Empire that had haunted the pages of its sacred books as some ethereal demonic spectre was changing. The revolution in sentiment was demonstrable in the Latin text of Jude (cited above). Other Latin words could have been chosen to translate κράτος, but the use of imperium made a clear allusion to Roman Empire itself. Yes, it is possible to interpret the term as anything from "might" to "power," but its connotative currency by the time the Latin textual tradition of the Epistle of Jude solidifies firmly rendered allusion to the empire itself. I would argue that in no small part there was correlation between the translation choice and the ascendancy of Christianity from a counter-culture condemned by the Roman Empire, to being the imperial cultus itself.

Jude 25, therefore, is a textual symptom of Christianity's eventual assimilation into the dominant political/cultural power. Although one may argue that Paul sought something of a live-and-let-live resolution within the context of Roman imperium, the majority of the New Testament is, at best, ambivalent to empire, and this is only where it is not openly hostile to it, such as in Gospel of John or the Apocalypse.

Whereas Paul sought to exercise his rights as a Roman citizen, and the rest of the New Testament seeks distance from imperium, the fourth century church is in the new position of trying to workout every dynamic in its new role as favored cultus and ritual expression of imperial cohesion. The influence of the imperial cult left its mark upon the fourth century church (and subsequent Christian tradition). This can be seen in such fine details as ritual practise and vestments, but more profoundly in the very organization of the Church itself. The Emperor convoked councils, established imperially endorsed hierarchy, and, by imperial decree, provided institutional stability. Christianity, as a consequence, found itself in the new position of having to account for an empire into which it had become a vital social fabric tying the imperium together. The Empire had assimilated Christianity. It became time for Christianity to assimilate the Empire into its conception of its own identity.

When Christianity began to normalize the Roman Empire (and state power ever after), it had to conceive of itself not as something working around the imperium, but as an intrinsic component to it. It soon began to conceive of itself in such terms. Whether it was Roman Church filling in the institutional vacuum left by the fall of the Western Empire, or the immediate proximity of imperial power to the Eastern Churches, particularly Constantinople. Christianity ceased seeing itself as something that ran parallel or contrary to state power, and more as something ran along side or as part of the dominant political/cultural power.

The cultural tumult in the lands home to many of the Greek Christian churches re-introduced marginal status, save for the expansion into Slavic lands. In the West, Christianity was seamlessly wed to political/cultural ascendancy. The consequence of this growth was the development of a latent inability to find a healthy distance from the dominant cultural power, or power in general. Save for denominations of Anabaptist descent, who make a conscious decision to separate themselves by various degrees from the state, Christianity seeks a place at the tables of power. It seeks to find some stream of political influence and wield it for the definition of public policy designed to secure its fortunes. In our own day where things have essentially broken down into the rut of liberal-conservative dialectic. Christianity has both liberal and conservative presentations, geared towards networking the socio-political currents it thinks most advantageous. Again, the latent inability to find a healthy distance between itself and the dominant cultural power becomes apparent.

The quandary caused by the proximity between Christianity and the state most often manifests itself in the area of moral authority. Augustine famously argued the moral ground of the state (the Roman Empire) to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy among heretical groups. In later centuries, both Catholic and Protestant religious authorities used the power of the state to enforce religious cohesion. Roman circles came to distrust the state with the onset of the French Revolution and its train of consequences across the continent.

The eventual rise of as the dominant worldview in the West came to place pressure on the Western Church to adopt the same worldview, in so far as the historical proximity to the dominant cultural power increased the likelihood of the ranks of clergy and ministers being composed of people who fully absorbed the cultural mindset. It was, then, inevitable that resistance would be futile so long as Christianity held on to an institutional self-conception within the culture. This has placed Christianity, as it has so many times since the Edict of Milan, in a compromised position, once again willing to betray its own principles.

Abortion was the catalyst for the most recent demonstration of Christianity's inability to find proper distance from the state. Having been found wanting in its ability to make the moral and spiritual case against abortion for the majority of its members (in the West), Christian churches pivoted to the tired tactic of trying to adopt secular power to impose moral order. The practical result was to inculcate a broad sense that the State itself had moral authority, that law in the most absolute terms defines morality and immorality. The same can be said for clumsy way in which Christianity (at least in its more conservative quarters) tried to address gay marriage. It failed to present a persuasive moral or spiritual argument and pivoted to attempting to find a political solution to conserve moral order. It failed. Both abortion and gay marriage flourished from within the culture as a likely consequence of the place of the individual in modern/post-modern thought and were aided by the political process. The inability of Christian churches to commit their members to refusing either notion despite legality stems from the inability of Christianity to offer a contrary and holistic worldview distinct from the dominant cultural or political power. Such a failure can likely be attributed to its historical proximity and the chronology of the dominant cultural/political power (particularly, though not exclusively, in the West) ultimately determining how it interpreted and applied principles developed in its first three centuries that were, plainly, counter-cultural and anti-imperial.

War is another issue in which the near total inability of Christianity to propose a coherent and sustained response is painfully obvious. Pope Paul VI famously pleaded "No more war" at the UN. In doing so, he is in line with common reaction in Christianity towards war, but in pleading for a cessation in conflict, mainline Christianity is willing to give the State moral authority in the area of war. It is willing to surrender the ability to distinguish morality from immorality, rather than directly denounce a given conflict and call for the resistance of its members from participating therein. Partially, Christianity is bound to Augustine's ruminations of hypothetical conditions for a just conflict. More directly, Christianity is unwilling to deal with the often damnable political realities that lead to conflict and the full scope of the degree to which modern warfare technology has made theories of just war nearly irrelevant. To my knowledge, only one institutional voice ever expressed such a sentiment, the late Cardinal Ottaviani. Conversely, he was a supporter of nascent globalization as the means to resolve the problem of modern warfare. In any event, his stance never gained institutional traction in the Roman Church. Today, such perspective (be it among Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant) is on the extreme margin. This perspective does not merely protest a a conflict, it comes to the realization that the whole system that played background to the conflict is corrupt and the only "side" that matters and can be said to carry no culpability is the citizens who typically find themselves forced into a conflict.

This perspective, then, is willing to condemn the state and call for resistance - but again, it is the extreme minority. For the most part, Christianity finds the prospect of divorcing itself from the state or political power to be inconceivable. In truth, they are correct. For 1700 years, Christianity has known the post-Constantine order - it has been part of the system. It has subsequently forgotten what its first three centuries looked like, and even a number of the principles upon which it stood during the time when it survived and indeed thrived by going around the system. One wonders if now more than ever that is the type of Christianity that humanity secretly needs, one that exists by going around the system and offering men and women an alternative vision and praxis for life.

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