Thursday, February 02, 2017

I Blame Constantine

What an amazing time to be a Christian in the United States. Just today a cousin of mine whom I love dearly posted on Facebook her fear that the constitution was being destroyed by fundamentalist Christians. Imagine that, in just two hundred and forty-one short years we've come round to a place where U.S. citizens think Christians are a threat to a country founded by Christians. How does such a thing happen.

I blame Constantine.

Up until 324 A.D. Christianity truly was a counter-cultural revolution that was not of this world. The earliest followers of Jesus had no political aspirations for they knew their kingdom was not of this world. They met secretly and grew quickly with a message of community, love, acceptance, forgiveness, and salvation that would last for all eternity. Christians weren't interested in earthly power because Jesus had already imparted to them the power of the Holy Spirit. They had the power to heal the sick and raise the dead. No politician in their wildest imaginings had this kind of power.

Then Constantine became a follower of Christ and, as a political ruler, gave state sanction to Christianity along with all other religions. He returned confiscated property back to the Christian owners. He exempted Christian leaders from certain taxes (maybe you thought that was uniquely American). He assembled the first Council of Nicaea from whence came the Nicene Creed, one of the ancient statements of Christian faith. And he began the long history of the unholy union of church and state.

So I can't really blame all the protesters shutting down airports and senators weeping behind microphones over a government that's not acting with Christian charity toward the disadvantaged, oppressed, and outcast people of the world. It's been 1,693 years of church and state in bed together and, let's face it, the church has done some dastardly things to stay in the good graces of their political handlers. There have even been whole centuries when you couldn't tell the two apart.

You see governments are temporal and territorial by nature. Each country draws its borders then proceeds to protect those borders for the sake of the people within and to the exclusion of the people without. Sometimes a land is conquered adding to the territory and sometimes revolt happens throwing off the control of one government and establishing another. Some countries can trace their borders back thousands of years while there are others like South Sudan which only goes back less than six years.

The church, on the other hand, is eternal and universal. Jesus' love is for everyone. The church is without borders and is called to seek out the lost, least, and left behind. Followers of Christ show up all over the world, often at great physical risk to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them...or anyone. Pope John Paul II famously forgave the man who shot him. An act many admired but many also didn't understand.

The church is called to address injustice wherever it occurs. Christians are charged with being the representation of God to everyone demonstrating love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and justice. The church at its very best cares for widows and orphans, clothes the naked, visits the imprisoned, houses the homeless, feeds the hungry, and tends to the sick. All this without judging anyone's eternal disposition but trusting God to ultimately be in control.

So I don't blame Christians for speaking up and speaking out for refugees, the displaced, and the dispossessed. In fact I expect that from them. Not only do I expect them to speak up, I expect them to act on their convictions and it's been my experience that they do. I've spent my whole life with Christians in countries all over the world including in the U.S. who were tending to the neediest people. People who were being treated at best with disregard and at worst with hostility by their governments.

At the same time I expect the government and those who lead it to take every necessary measure to protect the boundaries of our country. That includes putting a stop to the influx of refugees until such time as those in leadership can be certain those with ill intent toward our citizens are not sneaking in through that door. That includes strong border protection and finding a way to control immigration into this country so that both those immigrating and our country are strengthened in the process. I want a government that has as it's first and most pressing concern the welfare of the citizens it governs. That includes all citizens and those who desire to legally become citizens. And I expect the government keeps this primary concern top of mind when dealing with all other governments of the world.

I expect that of the government of France, the government of Great Britain, the government of Canada, the government of Mexico, the government of China, and India, and Russia, and every other government of every other country on earth. And I expect nothing less from the government of the United States of America. This is my temporal and political expectation which I'm able to separate from my Christian expectation which is eternal and universal.

I blame Constantine for the confusion amongst Christians and those who are haranguing Christians about the government not being compassionate or caring. We have 1600 years of confusion regarding the role of the state and the role of the church to unravel. St. Paul instructed Christians to submit to the authority of the government placed over them. He did not, however, confuse the government with the church. And neither should we. Let's stop insisting our government act like the church and start doing some positive things with our moral outrage.

The church, the Christian church, all those who follow Jesus should absolutely care about the refugee crisis in this world. Every one of us should be housing homeless people, feeding hungry people, clothing naked people, visiting sick and imprisoned people. And if our government for a time keeps any of those people from getting to us we should not let that deter us from going to them. If, for a time, the obligations put upon our government for providing safety inside our territorial borders should cause them to keep needy people away from us then we should gather up our passports and go to where the refugees are. Now there's a genuinely good reason to go to an airport. Because the church is universal. There are no boundaries for us. Wherever we go God is there with us.

And should we die in our pursuit of God's call on our lives we know that simply means we have transitioned into eternity with him. Into a place where there is no more fear, no more tears, no more death, and no more refugees. Truth be told all who follow Jesus know we are strangers in a strange land waiting to be called home to heaven. As refugees ourselves we long to cross the border into eternity. For now, though, we are sojourners not yet permitted to cross that border.

I hope, perhaps in vain, that we will all stop confusing the role of church with the role of government and vice versa. But 1600 years of confusion is a very daunting challenge to overcome, so I won't be overly upset if it doesn't happen in my lifetime.

I'll just blame Constantine!


Pamela said...

Thought-provoking perspective. Well-said, Tim

Pamela said...

Thought-provoking perspective. Well-said, Tim

Dave said...

The political left loves the government and hates the country. The political right loves the country and hates the government. Many, if not most, evangelical Christians identify with the right. Why? The state always threatens to corrupt/co-opt/destroy the church (see Roman Catholic church). God or government? That's why we have "separation of church and state." Not to protect the state but to protect the church.