Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The legacy of Christendom?

The terror attacks in Norway this week claim to be executed as a protest against both Marxism and Islamic immigration. The villain of the piece, Anders Behring Breivik, believes he has struck a blow on behalf of Christian Europe. He stands in a long line of right-wing perpetrators of hate and violence. Throughout Europe's history, many leaders have claimed to stand against Jews, Muslims, Marxists, and others who have been seen as the enemies of Christendom, polluting the cultural nature of northern Europe. Such leaders have found ready allies in the institutions of the Christian church.

Yes, this is sad to say, but all too true. One doesn't have to look back very far to find examples. Adolph Hitler's Aryan agenda was far more extreme than Breivik's manifesto. However, in the 1930's, forces within the state church of Germany, the Vatican, and -- most surprising -- even within the anti-Hitler Confessing Church, stood ready to tolerate much of Hitler's racist agenda for the sake of the "greater good". Tolerance for Hitler was not limited to Europe. I was recently reminded that in the 1930's, many Americans, too, thought Hitler had the right idea, getting Jewish influences out of the mainstream of Germany's economy and government. Certainly most people in those years didn't anticipate the full force of Hitler's genocidal plans, but many people applauded his first unstable steps on the road to a pure Aryan Reich.

Breivik this week played a sad, old song that has gotten far too much airtime in the history of European Christendom. Here is the truly alarming fact, however: his fearful ideas about standing against Marxism and against Islamic immigration would probably find a sympathetic hearing in many Christian churches in America today, if they were not attached to violence.

Those who are committed followers of Jesus Christ need to sit up and take note. If our goals include maintaining a "Christian culture" in America, we are in grave danger. Why? Because this is the same road Breivik thought he was walking when he started mixing his fertilizer bomb. Do you believe we need to elect Christian officials who will reinstate school prayer and keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because America is a Christian nation? Take care, because your beliefs will be easily manipulated by the fear-mongers.

Don't tell yourself it could never happen here. Imagine that, for whatever reason, we double-dip the recession we hope is currently ending. Imagine that jobs become even more scarce and unemployment hits 12, 15, or even 20%. Add a spike in inflation into the mix, so your dollars buy even less than they do today. Imagine another Islamic terrorist cell striking a target either in America. Imagine that Afghanistan turns into a painful, ongoing military tragedy like it did for the Soviets. Any combination of a few of these factors would radically increase the levels of fear in our country, and fearful people are easily manipulated. A charismatic leader who promised great things for us and gradually, gracefully, began to preach that we need to seal off our borders and re-take our own nation ...

Authentic Christianity has never survived alliance with the ruling powers. In the Roman Empire, in the Crusades, in the state churches of Europe, and in dozens of countries where bishops are today the de facto political powers, we see the true fruit of alliance between politics and faith. Jesus' example of humility, servanthood, and sacrifice is the first casualty of such an alliance. Jesus' concern for others -- his mission to "seek and save what was lost" -- disappears under a triumphalist "gospel" that exercises power over others in order to save some illusory Christian culture. Such an alliance co-opts naive believers and provides a platform for the power hungry.

In all the historical examples listed above, Christians believed they were following the will of God. From Constantine's vision of becoming a Christian emperor to the soldiers heading off to take Jerusalem away from the Mohammedans in the 1100's to the Reich's Church in Germany supporting Hitler's "Aryan Paragraph", Christians have been fooled. Christendom, that political system that dominated western civilization from Constantine until the 20th century, is thought to be a system in which Christianity rules over culture. In reality, Christianity loses its soul and sooner or later becomes the unwitting tool of cynical politicians who use religion to gain power for themselves.

The Bible tells us not to believe every spirit, but to discern the spirits, whether they are truly from God. We must be wary of any teaching, any belief that claims Jesus' lordship over our enemies means we should have power over them. Such a belief is not true to the example of Jesus, to biblical theology, nor to the legacy of the early church. If we believe our side should have worldly power over their side, we have bought into the questionable legacy of Christendom.


  1. Jeff,

    Good stuff. As I've mentioned to you, I have really been trying to read the Gospels thru the eyes of the original hearers of Jesus' words - the 1st century Israelites. In the 21st century, we read "repent and believe [me]" as a call to come to God so we may have eternal life, heaven. More and more I am very aware that Jesus was telling the first century hearers they needed to change their thinking / belief that God would usher in his kingdom via nationalistic means. We seem to always think in terms of nationalism. I wonder if its a misunderstanding of "I will make you a great nation..." (Gen 12).

    Interestingly, I recently heard or read (probably NT Wright) that when Josephus was a military officer, he had to reprimand a young recruit and that he (Josephus) used the exact same words, in Greek, with the young man. He said "repent and believe me" basically meaning the way you want to do things won't work and will get you killed. Hmmm.


  2. Curt,

    Excellent stuff. The N.T. Wright quote is very thought provoking at the least. As you and I have discussed many times, it drives to the actual meaning of "pisteuo" in the Greek New Testament, which is usually translated "believe" but carries much more weight than the English word.

    I do think that politics is our natural, flesh-oriented response to the gospel -- we want to make policies. How then do we deal with Jesus' words to Pilate in John? The church needs to understand this! Thanks for your comments.