I enjoyed reading James Crossley’s recent book. It explores the possibility that chaotic social forces impact religious history more than charismatic leaders do, and also how Jesus’ apocalyptic protest movement laid the foundations for its own brand of imperial rule. The second thread I was drawn to, and is addressed head on in the chapter called “The Dictatorship of God?”. I’ll focus on that chapter in this post.
We know the cliche that Constantine was a betrayal of Jesus’ teaching, but Crossley says that’s not the full story (p 64). On the one hand, the message of the early Christians was one of peace, provision, and well-being for all, in view of the new age. Since there would soon be no more war, followers of Jesus should refrain from violence. There would soon be no more oppression, and so people were to treat everyone decently now — especially the socially marginalized, outcasts, slaves, the destitute, women, and children. There would be no more demonic powers, and those capable should exorcise now, in preparation. Etc.
Side by side this “good news”, however, were promises of more power and dominance in the kingdom of God. Not least, says Crossley, in texts like these:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, and you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Mt 19:28; cf. Lk 22:29-30)
Although Crossley refrains from trying to “prove” that any particular saying does or doesn’t go back to Jesus, he says (rightly, I think) that a good case can be made for the general reliability of texts like this one (p 73). It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Jesus had promised his disciples power, authority, and dominion as portrayed in Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30. Yet I would emphasize this wasn’t a power to be exercised in the earthly realm before the end times. Crossley acknowledges this too, but his stress is on the limits of Jesus’ imagined alternative: “Far from advocating a world that removes imperial power, the descriptions of the kingdom of God champion little more than a changing of the guard.” (pp 74-75)
It’s a fair point. Those who protest injustices often have their own power agendas (violent rebels who have high ideals often become oppressive dictators once they supplant the old regime), and we shouldn’t be surprised that when Jesus and the early Christians thought about the end times, they couldn’t escape thinking in terms of domination and subjugation. As Crossley says, it was the only way they could “realistically” — even in the context of apocalyptic fantasies — conceive an alternative to the present powers. As Paul put it, “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord” (Philip 2:10-11). (p 76) The Christian message was liberating, but it still needed the framework that defined the world.
And once Christianity became the religion of the state, that framework could become problematic. Crossley notes, for example, the case of the Maori tribe of New Zealand (pp 88-89), who identified themselves with “the Jews” of Jn 5, in rejecting Christian colonial domination in the 1870s. In the gospel of John, the Son’s authority is grounded in the context of a Christian minority’s split from synagogue authority, but in the hands of a politically dominant Christianity, the Son’s authority can suddenly be seen as oppressive. This example of the Maori tribe doesn’t seem typical, however.
Crossley is careful to point out that he’s not making sweeping claims about Christianity, only that Christian ideas could be compatible with imperialistic thinking and have been so (pp 89, 91). I agree with that, but I also get a sense that he thinks this menacing potential is roughly the same in any religion (whether Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, see p 89). In light of his passing remarks in chapter 1 against the “new atheist” crowd in assessing problems with Islam (see p 12), it’s worth looking at this more closely.
For example, I find it curious that even at the most authoritarian stages of its history, Christianity’s more enlightened or subversive elements could resist the imperialist trajectory. Not always, of course, and in varying degrees of success. Let’s briefly consider slavery and holy war:
- Slavery. From its imperial start, Christianity worked to alleviate the conditions of slaves and eventually condemned the institution. Constantine didn’t attempt the impossible — a sudden wholesale emancipation — but he did introduce measures that were unique in the statute book of Rome. His prohibition against cruelty to slaves was based on texts like Mk 25:31-46, where the king (God) says, “to the extent that you did it to these, even the least of them, you did it to me”, when crossed with Paul’s formula of Gal 3:28 (“in Christ there is neither slave nor free”). The lives of slaves improved somewhat, particularly those of women and young men, and subsequent emperors abolished different aspects of slavery (like gladitorial contests), until finally Justinian (in the sixth century) condemned the entire institution. The end result of all this was that Christian kings and bishops repeatedly denounced slavery so that by the eleventh century, the practice had effectively ended in most parts of Europe. This trajectory is opposite that of Islam, which consistently relied on slavery. Muhammad took concubines and slaves in warfare, and the Qur’an sanctions slavery (as in Sura 23:5-6). Slaves were procured by banditry and piracy, and between the 7th century and the 20th, over ten million people were enslaved by the Arab world. On the flip side, American Christians were able to justify slavery on theological grounds when abolitionists condemned it; the early Christians may have gone to bat for slaves, but they still took its institutional premise as a given (so Philemon).
- Holy War. For centuries imperial Christianity opposed the idea of holy war, even though it could have benefited immensely from it. Sacred violence was unthinkable, because it opposed Christian thought at a basic level. What happened was that a more “muscular” Christianity evolved after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and with the rise of Germanic martial culture the problem of Christian knights, who were told by monks that their warrior profession made them sinful and destined for torments in the afterlife. The church tried its best to curb knightly violence, with the Peace of God (980s) and Truce of God (1020s). (The Peace required knights to protect the weak and poor, and the Truce prohibited them from any fighting at all on certain days of the week.) These were commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The point is that the church, even at imperial heights, resisted violence in view of its savior’s pacifism. When it finally adopted holy warfare as a solution to the knightly dilemma, it was instituted as a voluntary measure, and in defense against Islamic aggression. Opposite Jesus, Muhammad was the jihad exemplar, and holy warfare has always been mandatory in Islam, regardless of its political state of affairs. The crusades eventually faded, as the idea of crusading seemed increasingly antique to secularists, and anti-Christian to Christians. The church always knew that holy wars ran counter to its core beliefs.
My point here — and it’s a point often emphasized by the “new atheist”crowd, with whom Crossley takes issue — is that beliefs have power as beliefs. We know that scriptures are a matter of interpretation, of what people make of them, or bring to them, but the reverse can be just as true: scriptures and traditions have a strong lead in shaping people. They can inspire and produce behavior, sometimes irrespective of social and political factors, and if a preponderance of those beliefs run contrary to the leanings of imperialism, domination and subjugation, then enlightenment at least has a better chance of prevailing in the long run. A religion, on the other hand, whose core beliefs align with imperialism, domination and subjugation (as in Islam) has a much bigger problem, and it’s a problem too often obscured by focusing on aggravating factors like politics and poverty (as listed by Crossley on p 12).
Crossley’s overall point is an important one. Christianity does have the duality he outlines, grounded in its genesis. There’s no reason to believe Jesus was a Great-Enough-Man to be exempt from the duality. I suggest, however, that there is a preponderance of the more enlightened (“subversive”, “peaceful”, “liberating”) elements in Christianity that offer a realistic hope of keeping the “Dictatorship of God” in check.