For most Christians, discerning the path of Jesus is a difficult task. The difficulty arises because it has become obscured over the centuries. And the very church that professes belief in Jesus has created much of the obscurity.
from Yeshu to Christ
Outside of Palestine, in the years after his death, a dramatic transformation of Yeshu took place. His followers began to speak of Jesus as “Lord” and “Son of God,” religio-political terms usually reserved for the emperor of Rome alone. Initially this was a way of declaring allegiance to the alternative values of Jesus and the in-breaking reign of God, and declaring resistance to the social values, economics, and military power of the empire of Rome. The first simple credal confession grew out of this practice: “Jesus is Lord.”
In Syria, and later in Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, the transformation of Jesus went much further. A religious cult began to develop around the figure of Jesus as the Christ (Greek for messiah). His story as a martyr was blended with popular mystery religions of a dying and rising god. Within decades of his death, Jesus was being worshiped as a god in some pagan cities of the Roman Empire. The human Jesus was becoming the cosmic Christ.
Many different ideas about Jesus’ identity, mission and message were developing within the diverse communities of his followers. The teachings of Jesus were soon blended with apocalyptic and Gnostic thought. Words that Jesus never spoke were attributed to him. He was transformed into an apocalyptic preacher who proclaimed the end times. His obvious failure as a militaristic and nationalist messiah was corrected by the claim that he would soon return in great power and authority to rid the earth of evil and violently destroy the persecutors of the new faith. The nonviolent prophet was transformed into an avenging warrior king.
Mythical stories grew up around Jesus. Some claimed he was born of a virgin like the mythical heroes of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Jesus was known as a healer and exorcist, but new stories gave Jesus miraculous power over the elements of nature.
Like other mystery religions, a rite of initiation (baptism) became part of the Christ-cult observances. The shared common meal of the early Christian communities soon became a ritual meal (Eucharist) that commemorated the death of Jesus. Pagan spiritual practices like ecstatic speech (speaking in tongues) were sometimes incorporated. All the trappings of a real religion developed around the cult of the Christ including hymns and rituals, prayers and community rules.
Some early Christian communities were distinctly Jewish in nature. Others flourished in Greco-Roman cities, where they became the predominant form of the growing faith. Greek concepts about the separation of body and soul replaced the Jewish idea of an integrated, inseparable personhood that ended at death. The Pharisaic belief in an earthly resurrection of the dead became incorporated with the Greek idea of an eternal soul existing beyond death. The combination of the two eventually became a belief in an afterlife in heaven—something which would have been very foreign and strange to Jesus .
communities of compassion
Yet, even in these early Christ-cult communities, a commitment to nonviolence, sharing of goods, social equality, and welfare of the destitute set the Christians apart for several hundred years after the death of Jesus.
From the first tiny communities in Galilee and Jerusalem to the rapidly spreading communities of Paul in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, the early churches were distinctly counter-cultural groups that stood in opposition to the prevailing power structures of Roman society—domination systems of privilege, wealth, exclusiveness, and violent suppression of social and economic reform.
These Christian communities existed on the margins of society. To a great extent they were composed of marginalized people—slaves and outcasts—although they soon attracted artisans, merchants and wealthy elites to their ranks. They were communities of radical equality that cut across class differences, economic status, ethnic backgrounds and gender roles.
They developed a lifestyle outside of accepted Roman norms that offered their members security in an insecure world that had no social safety nets. Each tight-knit community of compassion provided its members with food, shelter, and support—personal, spiritual, social and economic.
People were more attracted to the early churches for how they lived than for what they preached. In spite of the fact that Christian communities were often viewed with suspicion as atheists and traitors by Roman authorities, one pagan writer admiringly observed, “See how they love one another.” That became the hallmark of the early Christian communities.
For over 300 years, these early communities that based their communal lives on the teachings of Jesus remained as distinctive communities of justice, nonviolence, generosity, and hope in an oppressive world.
the Constantinian shift
Then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine invited the church to participate in the power of global empire and everything changed.
Constantine became emperor of the western half of the Roman Empire upon his father’s death in 306 CE. In 312, he began suppressing challenges to his authority and sought to gain control of the eastern half of the empire as well.
While preparing for a battle near Rome against a superior force, Constantine reportedly saw a vision of a flaming cross in the sky inscribed with the Latin words, “In hoc signo vinces” (In this sign you shall conquer). He led his troops into battle bearing a standard fashioned with the Christian monogram of the word Christ—the Greek letters chi and rho superimposed (XP). He was victorious.
By 324 CE, Constantine finally achieved full control over an undivided empire. In 330 he re-located the imperial headquarters to the eastern capital of Byzantium, and changed the name of the city to Constantinople.
Constantine recognized the strength of Christianity, and saw that even while it was a prohibited religion, it was growing increasingly popular. He believed he could harness the power of its God for the benefit of the state.
As early as 313, he issued the Edict of Milan which established toleration of Christian worship throughout the empire. The edict made Christianity a lawful religion but did not make it the official state religion. Constantine continued to tolerate paganism and encourage the imperial cult. At the same time, however, he endeavored to unify and strengthen Christianity.
In 314, he convened a meeting of church leaders at Arles (in modern France) to regulate the church in the west, and in 325 he convened and presided over a council at Nicaea (in modern Turkey) to arbitrate theological disputes about the nature of Jesus. The resulting Nicene Creed and related doctrines established the first official orthodoxy of the church. The Christian church that we know today was formed under the influence of Constantine. The small autonomous church communities were soon organized into a clerical hierarchy based on the structure of Roman government.
the church of Constantine
Under Constantine, the church was carefully and craftily co-opted by the state. Christianity moved from a position of state persecution to state protection. Not long after, it became the official religion of Rome, replacing the cult of the emperor.
Seduced by wealth and power, the church willingly became the servant of the Roman empire. Where once its role was prophetic—calling the wealthy elite and ruling powers to create a just society—it now became a chaplain to the powerful, accommodating its values to the needs of politics and blessing the domination system that oppressed the poor. For the first time, Christians willingly went to war.
The church of Constantine became a wealthy institution invested in empire. To support the socially conservative politics of the emperor and the elites, the church became religiously conservative as well. Jesus and his teachings were spiritualized, because the political and social elements of the reign of God were too threatening to concentrated wealth and power. The doctrine of the trinity elevated Jesus to the godhead. As his divinity increased, his humanity diminished. He became sinless and perfect, well beyond the ability of anyone to follow him.
With the establishment of creeds and doctrines, church dogma was mandated and enforced. Those who dared to deviate were called heretics. Both books and people were burned to eliminate the threat of heresy. The church—once the victim of persecution—now had become a persecutor.
Through all of this, Jesus was efficiently and effectively domesticated. His vision of the reign of God was twisted and distorted into a harmless description of an inner personal state, or of a heavenly afterlife, or even of the church itself. The revolutionary reign of God was spiritualized to the extent that it was no longer a threat to the status quo of the rich and powerful. First the elites killed Jesus; now they effectively killed his vision.
Until the last century, the integration of church, state, and culture throughout western civilization became known as Christendom. This term recognized that the church and Western culture were closely intertwined. The church was at the center of political, economic, and military power and it exercised considerable control over kings and nations.
The Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth century created a stir in the system, but it didn’t restore the counter-cultural role of the church in opposition to the state. Reformers like Martin Luther challenged the doctrines of the church, but in the end they needed the support of the princes and emperors to survive. The church continued to be the handmaiden of the state supporting oppression and militarism.
Then, near the end of the eighteenth century, the Constantinian church and Christendom began to disintegrate. Revolutions in France and North America created nations in which the church no longer played a significant role. Anti-clericism was very strong in revolutionary France. The Bill of Rights in the United States prohibited the government from establishing a state religion.
the handmaiden of evil
During the early twentieth century the role of the church as state chaplain got it into further trouble, particularly in Europe. The Protestant churches in Germany had enthusiastically supported German aggression in World War I. German soldiers wore belt buckles with the inscription “Gott mit uns” (God with us). In fact, so many nations, on both sides of the war, claimed that God was on their side that the God of the Constantinian church became separated into a number of proprietary national Gods. Every side claimed God’s support for their violence. When Germany was defeated, Germans reacted against their church’s stance. Membership and attendance dropped dramatically in Germany following the First World War
In the 1930s, when Hitler united the Evangelical and Lutheran churches under a state-appointed Reichsbishop and invited the German churches to play a supporting role in his new world order, most German pastors and bishops gladly accepted the offer. The new German Evangelical Church became a handmaiden to evil. After the war, the German church lost further credibility. People left in droves.
The situation of the German church was not unique. Churches in the United States have a long tradition of supporting our nation’s wars, until they become unpopular with the general public. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, many evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America cheered on the effort. Like the supporters of the Nazi regime, today’s Christiean evangelicals are strongly behind the right-wing neo-conservative vision of U.S. domination of the world through military might. They believe this is our manifest destiny as God’s chosen nation. While they preach a culture of life regarding the unborn, they also support policies that lead to the wanton destruction of many children who are already born, including the tens of thousands of dead and wounded children of Iraq.
Every church that has an American flag next to the altar is simply the latest manifestation of the state church of Constantine. It is an outward symbol that allegiance to the state and all of its policies is equal to allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God. You can’t have it both ways. Jesus is not synonymous with the president of the United States. No wonder Christians are confused about the call to follow Jesus and where that call is leading us.
an irrelevant faith
Today, throughout Europe, the church is largely seen as irrelevant. It has failed to oppose evil in the political realm and has instead focused its efforts on condemning personal immorality, usually confined to the private sexual realm.
Many people today have no real need of the church unless they experience trouble in life. Most people see the church only at the significant events of life: birth, marriage and death; or as some clerics say: “hatching, matching and dispatching.”
Rodney Clapp recalls a story of Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and writer:
“Years ago Nouwen was the chaplain of a Holland America cruise line. He stood one day on the bridge of a Dutch ship mucking its way through a thick fog into the port of Rotterdam. ‘The fog was so thick, in fact, that the steersman could not even see the bow of the ship. The captain, carefully listening to a radar station operator who was explaining his position between other ships, walked nervously up and down the bridge.’
“In the process of his nervous pacing, the captain collided with his ship’s chaplain. Adrift in anxiety as well as fog, the captain cursed the chaplain and told him to stay out of the way. ‘But,’’ says Nouwen, ‘when I was ready to run away, filled with feelings of incompetence and guilt, he came back and said: “Why don’t you just stay around. This might be the only time I really need you.”‘
“Mused Nouwen, ‘There was a time, not to long ago, when we felt like captains running our own ships, with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are standing in the way. That is our lonely position: We are powerless, on the side… not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.'”
Over the centuries, Christianity has become radically removed from the life and teachings of the Palestinian peasant who is the object of its devotion. Jesus the Christ has become an object of devotion for millions of people. In his honor, Christians have created monumental architecture, majestic music, and inspiring paintings. In his name, they have also committed horrendous crimes of hatred, persecution and violence.
Many people believe that the Christian church was founded by Jesus. Still others see the Apostle Paul as the founder of the faith. Neither of these ideas is true. The real founder of Christianity as we know it today was the Roman emperor Constantine. And the faith he brought into being is now falling apart.