Archive for February 2009

The Constantine Mindset

February 5, 2009

Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, and because of its association with him, the religion immediately exploded in popularity. Within seventy years it was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire – making it a crime not to be a Christian. The first recorded instance Christians killing pagans occurred shortly after. In short order, the militant church extended its power by conquering lands and peoples throughout Europe, compelling them to become baptized Christians or die. As Charlemagne instructed his Christian troops in their conquest of the Saxons: “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism … and stay a pagan, let him die.” …

The church had become “the church militant and triumphant.” …

What followed was a long and terrible history of people using the sword “in Jesus’ name for the glory of God.” Though there are, of course, many wonderful examples of Christ-like people and movements throughout church history, the reigning church as a whole – “Christendom” – acted about as badly as most versions of the kingdom of the world …

Augustine was the first theologian to align the church in an official way with the use of the sword, and it happened to be against a fellow Christian group, the Donatists. Among other things, the Donatists believed that the alliance between the church and the state that had been forged since Constantine was undermining the purity and integrity of the church, and they wanted to keep the church pure …

Augustine now justified the use of force by arguing that inflicting temporal pain to help someone avoid eternal pain is justified. Since God had given the church the power of the sword, Augustine reasoned, it had a responsibility to use it to further God’s purposes in the world just as a stern father has a responsibility to beat his child for his own good. Since God sometimes uses terror for the good of humans, we who are God’s representatives on earth – the church – may use terror for the sake of the gospel. If the end justifies it, the use of violence as a means to that end is justified. (This is, in essence, Augustine’s “just war” policy.) Augustine thus invoked a recent edict of the emperor Theodosius to criminalize the “heresy” of Donatism and attempt to persecute it out of existence. This set a tragic precedent for handling doctrinal disagreements for the next thirteen hundred years.

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, millions were burned at the stake, hung, beheaded or executed in other ways for resisting some aspect of the church’s teaching or for failing to operate under its authority. Thousands upon thousands were tortured in unthinkable ways in an attempt to elicit a confession of faith in the Savior and the church; some of the macabre torturing devices were even inscribed with the logo “Glory be only to God.” Christian groups such as the Paulicians, Cathars, Albigensians, and Waldensians were massacred by the towns – often including women and children – and Christians in both the West and the East slaughtered each other in Jesus’ name as ruthlessly as they slaughtered Muslims. Terrible atrocities were carried out on Jews, especially when the Crusades needed to be financed, and multitudes of women (estimates range between sixty thousand to several million) were burned or hung for allegedly being witches – most of whom denied the charge. The church of resident aliens had become a horde of savage warlords.

The militant, Constantine mindset carried into the Protestant Reformation. So long as they remained a persecuted minority, Reformers generally decried the use of violence for religious purposes. But once given the power of the sword, most used it as relentlessly as it had previously been used against them. Indeed, with the exception of the Anabaptist, every splinter group of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spilled blood. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and other Protestant groups fought each other, fought the Catholics, and martyred Anabaptists and other “heretics” by the hundreds. It wasn’t until the bloodshed became economically unbearable and unfeasible in the Thirty Years’ War that a truce (the Peace of Westphalia) was called and Christians agreed, at least theoretically, to end the violence.

Yet while the Christian use of the sword subsided in Europe, it continued in the New World. As God gave Canaan to Joshua, many argued, so God gave other lands over to white European Christians. To the thinking of many, the church “militant and triumphant” was on the move to conquer the world for Christ, and all who resisted it were seen as resisting God Himself and deserving of death. Christians coming to the long-inhabited land of America participated in the slaughter of millions of Native Americans, as well as the enslavement and murder of millions of Africans as a means of conquering and establishing this new land for Jesus. Such, it was claimed, was the “manifest destiny” of Europeans, and it wasn’t simply warriors who died at the swords of Christians. As is common with kingdom-of-the-world conquests, raping, torturing for sport, pillaging and treatise breaking were widespread.

While the violent expression of the Constantine mindset has been largely outlawed, the mindset itself is very much alive today. To be sure, in some parts of the world Christians still engage in violence against other Christians, Muslims, Hindus and other groups. But even within the borders of America, the mindset is alive and well. When Jerry Falwell, reflecting a widespread sentiment among conservative Christians, says America should hunt terrorists down and “blow them all away in the name of the Lord,” he is expressing the Constantine mindset. When Pat Robertson declares that the United States should assassinate President Chavez of Venezuela, he also is expressing the Constantine mindset. And when Christians try to enforce their holy will on select groups of sinners by power of law, they are essentially doing the same thing, even if the violent means of enforcing their will is no longer available to them.

Gregory A. Boyd
The Myth of a Christian Nation (2005), pages 76-80


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