Comment | Onward Christian Soldiers? Imperial Christianity and Resistance

In a climate of social upheaval, with millions rising against consumerism, individualism, and apathy, how is it, Malte Ringer asks, that ecclesiastical hierarchies haven't rushed to embrace the Occupy and anti-austerity movements?

Features, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, December 30, 2011 7:48 - 2 Comments

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A banner which reads “What would Jesus do?” flies outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London October 31, 2011. The Dean of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral resigned after the church said it would take legal action to evict a 200-tent anti-capitalist protest camp occupying the square outside. Reverend Graeme Knowles resigned just days after the cathedral Chancellor, Reverend Giles Fraser, quit in opposition to the legal action he said could result in violence done in the name of the church. (REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)

The current social conflicts have proved a challenge to Christianity. Millions of people are resisting consumerism, individualism, apathy, coldness towards others – aspects of capitalist society Christians devote much time to decrying. But ecclesiastical hierarchies haven’t rushed to embrace the Occupy and anti-austerity movements even as many, especially young Christians are sympathetic to the protesters. The Church of England’s dithering and high-profile resignations over the situation at St Paul’s are typical of the confusion.

Sadly, indecisiveness may be the more encouraging end of the spectrum. In the United States in particular, some Christian leaders have taken to attacking the Occupy movement. Chuck Colson, a Baptist leader and one-time advisor to Richard Nixon, denounced demands for greater income equality, claiming they were motivated by the sin of envy rather than a desire for justice. (He throws in a dash of neoliberalism, too: taxing the rich ‘will do nothing to help those in need or create a more just society, it just creates a bigger government’.)

Even if Colson is being sincere (which may not be the case), the spectacle of a wealthy church leader with connections to the highest levels of power lambasting the ‘envy’ of the have-nots invites charges of rank hypocrisy. Yet Colson claims to follow a first-century Jewish carpenter, born in a shed, living under foreign occupation, who was executed as a common criminal. How did we get there?

Since some right-wing Christian views – premillennial dispensationalism, say, whose adherents believe that the UN is a precursor to Antichrist’s one-world government – are more common in the US than they are in Britain, it’s tempting to focus on the lunatic fringe. But besides being unpleasantly smug, this also misses the point. The problem aren’t the apocalyptic outliers (influential though they may be), but an investment in western power that has captured mainstream Christian discourse, crowding out the Bible’s clear commitment to freedom from oppression.

The notion that western civilisation is built on a ‘Christian foundation’ that constantly finds itself threatened by secularism, poor people, feminism, and Islam has become a key element in conservative discourse, proclaimed daily in the pages of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Here’s David Cameron, declaring that ‘we are a Christian country’:

[T]he Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal, or the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore… And when it comes to fighting violent extremism, the almost fearful passive tolerance of religious extremism that has allowed segregated communities to behave in ways that run completely counter to our values has not contained that extremism but allowed it to grow and prosper.

This collection of social ills (bankers’ irresponsibility, rioting, terrorism) reveals that the message of the Bible has been reduced to a narrow obsession with propriety. While speaking of ‘values and morals’, David Cameron bombed Libya, is occupying Afghanistan, and supported the invasion and plunder of Iraq even before coming to power. His government is cutting benefits and services, attacking the disabled and the working class, and condemning millions to unemployment and poverty.

By branding the yearning for justice ‘envy’ Chuck Colson and David Cameron are not just slandering the Left: they’re insulting a collection of books I, as a Christian, take rather seriously. The Bible is in fact full of passages praising justice, and warning oppressors that judgment is coming. For example, God lambasts an Israel that had become obsessed with the minutiae of religious ritual but neglected the oppressed in its midst. Rejecting their ostentatious fasting, the Lord says (Isaiah 58:6-10):

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

As a result of historic defeats the language of the Left is often focused on outcomes, ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’. The Bible, on the other hand, is more forthright: it talks of freedom, loosing the yoke, setting the prisoners free. Its vision of another world is not one that is more equal, but one in which the ‘Downpresser Man’ has been vanquished, and revolutionary discourses heavily influenced by the Bible – reggae, for example – reflect this.

But that’s not the Christianity David Cameron offers us. To him, the Bible supports those in authority, especially if they’re punishing ‘immorality’. Following Laurence Vance I’ll call this imperial Christianity: a theology that identifies God’s work in the world with specific states it expects Christians to support, sometimes to the point of apocalyptic ruthlessness. This is especially prevalent in places where the church hierarchy has a stake in the state – as in the US – or is even intertwined with it, as in Britain.

Imperial Christianity is old: it dates to the fourth century, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and theologians began to identify the church with the Empire. Was Rome not God’s instrument through which all nations would be converted and civilised? Were not the Christian empire’s wars against its pagan enemies wars between God and the Gentiles? It could be no coincidence, surely, that Jesus had been born during the reign of Augustus, the first emperor.

In The City of God, St Augustine (354-430) lobbed a grenade into the heart of imperial Christianity. ‘Remove justice’, he wrote, ‘and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? … If [a criminal gang] wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralised that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom…’

This was not what God’s kingdom was like, Augustine explained: ‘[t]he safety of the city of God is such that it can be possessed, or rather acquired, only with faith and through faith’. The earthly and the heavenly city were ‘interwoven… and mingled with one another’ but ultimately distinct. Whatever the fate of earthly Christian empires, they were not where a Christian’s loyalty ultimately lay.

Jesus himself did not tell us to work hard defending an imaginary Christian polity, as if that polity could be Christian in any meaningful way while oppressing its poor and occupying foreign countries. Instead, he told us to spend our time helping our fellow human beings. Famously, he said that God would divide human beings into two groups in the end (Matthew 25:34-45):

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Let’s spell out the implications of this passage, adapting Naomi Klein. If he is ‘the least of these’, then Jesus is a Palestinian woman giving birth at a checkpoint in the West Bank, a fourteen-year-old jailed for rioting in Tottenham, a peasant starving in Somalia, a factory worker losing her home to foreclosure in Michigan, an Iraqi street orphan, a black man on death row in Texas, a raped woman who’s told she ‘wanted it’, a Foxconn employee who kills himself out of despair in China.

He is all the people we have been told to fear and despise, the whole suffering mass of humanity, the wretched of the earth. It’s not Christian to defend mansions and missiles just so long as the government will keep gay marriage illegal. Christian life is to unmask the discourses of power and to end oppression. The promise of Christmas is that injustice will not last forever.

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Malte Ringer

Malte Ringer is a writer and activist based in the UK. He blogs at campuskritik.blogspot.com.

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Peter
Dec 30, 2011 15:35

Great article although as regards the apparent apathy of the ‘ecclesiastical hierarchies’, Rowan Williams makes a very similar point to you in his article in the Christmas Edition of the Radio Times this year, where he argues,in response to ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, that Jesus would be ‘there’ with the protesters, ‘sharing the risks’, which should surely be commended.

Malte Ringer
Dec 30, 2011 17:31

Peter: As regards Rowan Williams I absolutely agree – there’s been a lot of encouragement from him and people like Giles Fraser.

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