Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Christianity: Discipleship or Control?

Discipleship is not about changing other people it is about changing yourself (cf. Luke 41-42). “Thy Kingdom Come” does not mean the establishment of an earthly political state. It means radical personal transformation, it means learning and choosing to love God, others and self (Matthew 36-40). Somewhere along the timeline of history, this changed. A professor in graduate school once grimaced and remarked in a lecture “one of the darkest days in the history of Christianity was the day of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion.” The professor saw the perplexed expressions on our faces and then he went on to elaborate.

Once Constantine converted, Christianity became the official State Religion of the Rome. The stole that are still worn to this day by bishops and priest was a mark of office bestowed by the Imperial Senate. The Creed that all Catholics and Orthodox Christians pray at Sunday Liturgy was insisted upon by the Emperor. A State Religion, after all, had to be uniform. It is a very subtle, but significant, point that Christianity was transformed from Discipleship, which focuses on the spiritual journey and transformation of the believer. It now became an instrument of political and social order.

Few nations illustrate this point more effectively than Spain. It was itself a collection of kingdoms, each with its own language, what we call “Spanish” today is in reality “Castillian” the language of Castile. What united all of these diverse kingdoms into what is today Spain was the Reconquista. This was the military reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Islam. The Spanish Inquisition, one of many such national Inquisitions, had far more to do with the unity of the State and the power of the crown than it had to do with theology. Russia offers another fascinating illustration of the marriage between the State and the Church and how the Church became an effective instrument of social control for the State.

Fast-forward to the USA in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The issue of the abolition of slavery divides Protestant congregations and denominations. The “Social Gospel” movement in American Protestantism had sought to promote Christian values through the social and political spheres. The result of this was the division of entire denominations along political viewpoints, for example, the split between Northern v. Southern Baptists, etc.

The dividing issue was slavery; many Christians saw slavery as the denial of human dignity and civil rights to a whole class of people. Many biblical literalists found proof texts that supported the practice of slavery. Because of these painful divisions, a new movement arose within American Protestantism, Fundamentalism. Essentially, Fundamentalism held that involvement in politics had divided denominations and destroyed communities; therefore, they would return to the basics, the “fundamentals.” This meant a return to the Bible and leaving politics at the church doors.

In January of 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States made its controversial ruling Roe v. Wade. This made abortion legal in the USA. A political science professor who taught a course I took as an undergraduate observed that whenever the Court rules ahead of society on an issue, it creates a political reaction within society. It was this decision, more than anything else, which politicized the Fundamentalists in America. Joining them, were Catholics who had gone through there own internal divisions due to the progressive changes of Vatican II. Richard M. Nixon observed, “Now the wackos will take over the Republican party.” The “Religious Right”, as it has come to be known today, has become the political base of the Republican Party and has changed the very nature of that Party.

For several decades, the “Religious Right” engaged in a political and social crusade against Roe v. Wade. This gradually expanded to opposition to LGBT issues as well as a host of other social and policy issues. Meanwhile, in the Catholic Church, John Paul I was elected Pope in the fall of 1978. He was seriously looking at the question of mandatory celibacy for priests. Mandatory celibacy as a requirement for ordination had been raised at the Second Vatican Council, but Pope Paul VI did not permit it to be discussed. John Paul I died after 33 days in office under mysterious circumstances. Vatican officials allowed no autopsy, remember that the Vatican is an independent sovereign nation. John Paul II succeeded him in office and began a movement to “correct the abuses of the post conciliar era.” His successor Benedict XVI continues these efforts.

I have to confess; when my old professor made his comments about Constantine, I was horrified. I thought the man has gone mad! Now, I begin to appreciate his wisdom. If carefully examine the actual teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospel, you soon discover it is about personal transformation. It is about growth in practical love. We’ve come a long way baby and maybe, in the wrong direction.

The following reprint of an HRC article offers some practical resources for approaching the Bible as a source of spiritual transformation and guide to practical love.

WASHINGTON – The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, announced today the release of the complete “Out In Scripture” collection. For the past three years, week-by-week, the HRC Religion & Faith program provided conversations on Bible passages from more than 100 scholars and pastors representing 11 denominations. These conversations are now available in a complete collection online at www.hrc.org/Scripture.


Fran said...

These words are not my own - when we pray "thy kingdom come" we should be mindful that with that our own kingdom must go. That one is pretty hard for most of us, even who those of us who want to surrender.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

James Carroll's book Constantine's Sword is pretty interesting. I like Carroll, but he does have his own axe to grind. That said, it is worth a look.

BTW, Father Geoff, I admire your ongoing witness to your own life and for issues of justice. You are ever in my prayers.

Kevin said...

Another Great Post Father. In October, I'm taking a class at Loyola called: Catholic does NOt equal the vatican. Deals with progressive catholics. I looked into the out in scripure. I think that is great and might I suggest putting together a group locally where we can all do this together. I'm sure so many people would love something like that with you leading us. I think what you are already doing is so healing for so many of us. I too am pissed at the years I felt guilty because of who I want to love or be intimate with! No MORE! Kevin.

Steven said...

Many thanks for the referral to HRC's "Out in Scripture."