This was the moment. He’d already resisted the urge to bake up fresh artisan bread, and said no to a platform dive from the roof of the Temple. Now, standing there in the wilderness, famished and exhausted, he faced the most exacting choice of all: continue on the path of humility, obedience and self-sacrifice, or reach out to grasp political power in the manner of a traditional emperor. All he had to do was pledge submission to the Accuser.
And he didn’t take the deal. He was tortured and brutally executed at the hands of the political overlords of the time, after his own people, the Fourth Gospel tells us, shouted that they had ‘no king but Caesar’. In the following 300 years, his disciples refused to participate in the Roman civil religion and suffered for it, in much the same way as their master.
A Game Changer
Enter Constantine the Great. After co-opting the symbol of the cross as a talisman to defeat a rival to the imperial throne, he famously adopted the Christian faith. He then elevated Christianity to the favoured religion of the empire. Notwithstanding the testimony of Eusebius (historian and head cheerleader for Team Constantine), many critics question just how devout and sincere the new emperor really was. There is little doubt that Constantine, ever the pragmatist, viewed the faith as a unifying force to sure up a fracturing empire.
The game had changed for Christians. Almost overnight, they had gained respectability and apparent influence on the most powerful person in the world. And it’s always nice to know you’re not destined to become lion food or a human torch. But now they had two masters – and two competing value systems. They were a self-sacrificing, missional, pacifist movement with concern for the poor and marginalised, partnering with a self-aggrandising, complacent, militant force that celebrated wealth and prestige. It wasn’t long before Christians were taking their marching orders from the emperor and the Church was at least as much (perhaps more) ‘Roman’ as it was ‘Christian’.
Taking the Deal
In the 1700 years since Constantine, the Church has had a litany of flirtations with power. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, tacit approval of and sometimes active participation in political and religious persecution…None of these will feature as tracks on Christianity’s ‘Greatest Hits’ album. The question is, have we learned any lessons from our history?
Enter the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. In the 1980s and 1990s, these groups pressured scores of American Christians into a tango with conservative politics, one that has been twirling the dance floor for almost 30 years. Like a marriage in a Jane Austen novel, this was seen as a ‘fortunate alliance’. Evangelicals got to insert ‘traditional values’ into the Republican Party platform. The Republican Party got a secure voting block.
But when we shake hands with power, we often find, as Lando Calrissian did, that those in charge have suddenly altered the arrangement – and the deal ‘gets worse all the time’. We make compromises that, deep down, we know we shouldn’t. We think we’re influencing the politicians, when all the while, they’re manipulating us. Before long, all of their policies become our policies. We start to reason, act and speak like them. And if we think this hasn’t happened, let’s ask ourselves if we really believe that owning automatic weapons, denying health care to the poor while giving out tax breaks to the rich, closing doors to immigrants and refugees, increasing the destructive capabilities of our military, and engaging in vilification and angry rhetoric are actual Christian values.
Who’s the Master?
So who is our master going to be? Will it be one political party or another that commands our allegiance? Will we continue to align ourselves whole-heartedly and unquestioningly with ‘Republicans’ or ‘Democrats’? Will we continue to buy in to this false dichotomy?
Or will our master be Jesus himself, who took an altogether different approach (one consistent with his response to the Accuser)?
He didn’t line up behind the Sadducees, the Jerusalem elites, who acquiesced to Rome in order to protect their own finances, position and influence. He refused to back the priests, who ran the Temple system and local government. He wouldn’t endorse the program of the Pharisees, the religious lobbyists of the day, who aimed to turn the nation back to God by enforcing moral laws and keeping the people racially pure and ‘unstained’ by foreigners and outsiders. And he wasn’t fooled by any superficial similarities their agendas shared with his own.
No, Jesus repudiated each and every one of these parties for their opulence, their ‘moral superiority’, their oppression and injustice, and their disdain for their neighbours. Quoting Isaiah 61, he proclaimed ‘the favour of YHWH’, ‘good news for the poor’, ‘freedom for the prisoners’, ‘sight for the blind’ and ‘liberation for the oppressed’. In short, he announced the Kingdom of God, through words and parables, through healings, through prophetic actions – and lastly, through a supreme act of self-giving love, absorbing the wrath of the political and religious forces of his day.
What would it look like for us to do the same?
The featured image is the Roman denarius from the time of Jesus – the one he would have held in the famous Temple scene (‘Whose image is this, and whose inscription?’). The face of Tiberius is shown with the caption, ‘Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’. The reverse side’s caption is ‘Pontif[ex] Maxim[us]’ – ‘High Priest’.