Constantine’s Greatest Trick

The greatest trick Constantine ever played on our world was to convince us that the Empire that killed Jesus should actually embrace the religion that bears his name.

Why this isn’t self-obviously shocking to us today is a symptom of both how completely our culture has accepted the ascendancy of Atonement Theology; and also why —two thousand years later— we still fall for the lie of Christian Nationalism in our time.

There are all sorts of stories about Constantine’s personal conversion, his Mother, etc, etc…
There are various accounts in the Gospels as to who was culpable for Jesus’ death, and who was not…etc, etc….

I’m asking you to not focus on any of this.
I’m asking you to look past what both the Christian Gospels tell us, and also what Constantine’s biographers tell us.

Look at the historically knowable facts…
1. Jews never crucified anybody.
2. Romans crucified hundreds, if not thousands.
3. Crucifixion was reserved for “criminals” who had violated the Roman Peace, or fomented insurrection against the state.
4. Four hundreds years later, everybody seemingly forgets all of this and the very Empire that killed Jesus around CE 33, embraces the religion that bears his name.

Isn’t that a nice trick?

What I’m suggesting to you today is: It’s the “trick” of ALL religious nationalism, and it’s the trick of CHRISTIAN Nationalism today.
Constantine was the OG Wizard of Oz….
“Pay no attention to that Empire who killed Jesus…but let’s put crosses on all of our battle shields…”

Four hundred years later, “the cross” had become so devoid of its meaning as a tool of state execution that NOBODY apparently saw any irony in any of this.

What I’m suggesting is that this is a two-fold move:
1. The cooption of Christianity *by* the Roman Empire.
2. A gauzy, glossy metaphorical transition of the cross *from* a form of state execution and *into* the symbol of all the Atonement Theologies which would come later.

It takes both moves, in order to coop Christianity into a “state religion,” like Christian Nationalist do still, in our day. (Constantine was just the first to do this…)

BUT! It also takes a church too willing to forget, or conveniently ignore, its own story, and to turn the cross into a metaphor devoid of its original meaning.

Donald Trump is, right now, selling Bibles with his name on the cover…a literal reminder that Christianity can STILL be coopted by the would-be Emperors in our day

Anybody who serves as an American President —whether they be a Black Man, a grandfatherly octogenarian, or an orange haired con artist— THEY are the leader of one of the greatest empires of our time. Whether we like this comparison or not, they are among the Constantine’s of our day.
This is a hard truth for Americans to admit…so hard that once when I said it in a sermon, somebody literally yelled out “No!!!”
But denying such truth doesn’t make it not true.

More than a decade ago now, I wrote a piece that has now been read thousands of times, often during this Holy Season of Lent.

Since that writing, two scholars who have been incredibly meaningful to me in recent years are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.

They penned a remarkable book called: “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.”

It’s a book that unpacks the unhealthy history of “Atonement Theology.” But it does so by suggesting that early Christians were NOT obsessed with the bloody body of Jesus.

In fact, these two women went on an extended field trip. They searched Christian sanctuaries and art all across the ancient world — Turkey, Ancient Greece and Rome, Egypt— and time and again, they FAILED to find bloody crucifixes in Christian Churches and Christian Art. They didn’t find a bloody Jesus for the first one thousand years of Christian history.

Instead, they found images of earthly and heavenly paradise. It was clear that early Christians both embraced the story of the crucifixion and resurrection…but they were much more drawn to the story of NEW LIFE, not the story of a bloody death.

These two authors come to this work —this concern about Atonement Theology— through their work with victims of violence. They suggest that the story of Jesus’ bloody suffering can trap women, the poor, the marginalized, into systems of oppression and violence. We know for a fact that enslavers used this story to “keep down” Americans who were enslaved.

The story of a suffering Jesus is a helpful tool to anyone who seeks to keep anyone else “under control.”

It says to average people: “See? Jesus suffered, so you just keep suffering too…that’s what God wants…”
(BTW, theology nerds, these two women scholars critique Liberation Theologies for, too often, falling into this same trap too…)

In a previous book (“Proverbs of Ashes”) we find these jaw dropping few sentences. Read and digest this slowly:

“Atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific. Intimate violence ends sin. Behind the holy mask of intimate violence, state violence disappears.”

(This section written by Parker. “Proverbs of Ashes,” page 39)

These are a dense but super important few sentences.

Crucifixion was state violence. But traditional Atonement Theology wipes this away and replaces it with intimate violence.
(Theologically: violence between “The Father,” and “The Son.”)

It teaches us that this violence is “holy” and that it, somehow, saves us. But it’s the last sentence that gets me back to my original point in this essay:

(All caps, so you’ll pay attention…)

This is the trick Constantine first perfected. This is the trick of all Empires who have used, or manipulated, the Christian message ever since. It’s the trick Christian Nationalists use in OUR day. And almost all of us —those building empire, the modern Christian Church, even Atheists and folks in other religions— we buy into this trick, even today.

We believe Atonement Theology IS Christianity.
We fail to update the story for our time…
We fail to ask: “Who are the characters in this story, today?”

My thoughts:
“Religiously collaborating Jews” = Christian Nationalists.
“Roman Empire” = American Empire.
“Crucifixion” = State power oppressing the marginalized.
Crowd shouting “Crucify him!” = Our scapegoat culture, fixated on “falling in love” with heroes, only to reject and destroy them later…the “Bread and Circuses” of pop culture.

Atonement theology is most harmful because it allows state violence to disappear behind a “holy mask.”

This is why I don’t wear a crucifix, or a traditional cross. This is why I wear this creepy looking “Lethal Injection Table Jesus.” It’s a crucifix, to be sure. But it’s one that invites us to re-remember the “scandal” and the “folly” of the cross.

The Jews didn’t kill Jesus.
The Romans did.
Empire did.

And we forget this to our continuing peril.

Christianity’s truly revolutionary message —that God no longer desires us to be “tribal” or “national”— was coopted by tribal religious leaders and nationalistic political ones. And it is still coopted, even into our day.

It was used to abuse and commit genocide against Jews…by the time the Gospels are written, Jews and Christians are tiny rival “sects” in the sea of the Roman Empire. But today, Nationalist Christians Otherize many more too: women, immigrants, the poor, the LGBTQ community and more. And Donald Trump wants you to buy his Bible to help pay his legal bills.

But let me finish with a word of hope…

Behind and beneath all this cultural detritus of two thousand years, there really are still some Christ-followers who embrace Jesus’ message of radical inclusion. We understand that, even in our day it’s such a revolutionary message that it can get you shunned, ignored, or killed.

There really are some of us who see the phrase Jesus is Lord,” as a way of saying “Caesar is not.”
(Thanks to Borg and Crossan for this…) (Another writing on this…)

We reject the bloody Atonement Theologies as a cultural dodge that seeks to pull our focus away from the true dangers of Empire in our time.

Jesus was crucified.
Jesus was crucified.

Both words matter.

And in our attempt to remain faithful to Jesus’ message, and to stand against the Empires of our day, we still to our world:

“Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.”

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