Monday, January 23, 2012

Rejecting Constantinian Christianity

Over the last Christmas & New Years break, I finished reading Dr. Cornel West's Democracy Matters, Winning The Fight Against Imperialism.  I'd picked it up from Borders, before my local book store went bankrupt.  At first, I was reluctant to dive into West's book.  It was the 2nd in a series (preceded by Race Matters), and it had a whole chapter on 'engaging youth culture' and how much rap matters in the table of contents, but I know Dr West is a very intelligent man who speaks eloquently, and I've enjoyed hearing him on Real Time, Tavis Smiley, and when he refutes Bill O'falafel's rhetoric to his face with facts.  So I plodded through the book, determined to keep an open mind. 

I am very glad I did.  In Democracy Matters, West explains how he taught at Harvard when one of chief the architects of 2008 housing melt down, Lawrence Summers, became the president of Harvard, and how Summers tried to run West out of Harvard on a rail.  It helped to frame Obama's remarkably poor choice of Summers as White House financial adviser as particularly upside-down and insidious, as well as the wrongful arrest & "have a beer summit" with West's department head, Henry Louis Gates.  I had not known those aspects, and I am grateful to West for elucidating them. 

West speaks of American nihilism, socratic questioning, tragicomic hope, and prophetic witness, throughout the work, and explains the importance of each.  As a principal engineer, I try to employ socratic questioning and encourage all of the young engineers I mentor to embrace it, so it was timely to read West proclaiming its importance.  The blues, as well as ancient Greek comedies are excellent examples of tragicomic hope, which I can understand and appreciate quite well.  Prophetic witness, West delved into deeply.

I knew that West was a Christian, but within the book, West describes the differential between the  Constantinian Christian and the Prophetic Christian.  I could try to distill it down, but West does an awesome job himself here, in this clip (link here in case the embedded 90 second video below doesn't work on your computer for you below).

As a disenchanted former Roman Catholic myself, I COMPLETELY got this, and understood it, related to it, and "the light bulb came on over my head".  It's the Constantinian Christians I cannot stand., won't truck with, and spit out of my mouth, completely rejected (yeah, I had Catechism class for12 years, if you want to spar on Bible verses and Catholic Dogma).  I mistakenly used to think it was the Prophetic Christians with whom I had massive problems, but I actually can relate to Prophetic Christians very well.  They're the Jeffersonian "red letter" Christians.  They Do Not advocate mixing and weaving religion with government.  They're a dwindling, diminishing species in America, and around the world, while the nationalistic Constantinian Christians draw more and more blind sheep into their easily mis-lead flocks.  It was the Roman government after all, who tortured and crucified Jesus of Nazareth.  And when Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and then began to prosecute Jews and Muslims "in the name of The Cross", he began the long process of distorting, co-opting and mutating the teachings of Jesus to reinforce imperialism, oligarchy, inequality, inquisition, genocide, and cruelty in the name of The State.

I now understand Cornel West much better, and see his point of view with extreme clarity.  I agree with much of what he says, but not 100% of it.  His speaking/writing style is one where single sentences can often stretch into paragraphs richly seeded with vernacular and metaphor that requires a SAT verbal score greater than 700 to grasp and savour.  People who label Dr West as a "rabid liberal" misunderstand & misinterpret him.  West is liberal, much like Jesus was a liberal, looking out for the poorest, most oppressed, most persecuted in society.  West shines a bright light upon the New Gilded Age oligarchs and their bought & sold politicians in the 21st century - and I hope he continues to do so, for many years to come.

On pages 150-151, in 3 paragraphs, West sums it up for fundamentalist Christians quite nicely:
"Ironically, Jesus's message of love and justice promoted a separation of his prophetic witness from Caesar's authority - 'render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.' Christ said. Yet the nihilistic imperialism of the Romans was so power-hungry that it couldn't tolerate the growing popularity of the Christian sects. When the growth of religion couldn't be stopped, the Roman empire co-opted it. With Constantine's conversion, a terrible co-joining of church and state was institutionalized from with the religion and many of its victims, especially Jews, have suffered ever since. Constantinian Christianity has always been at odds with the prophetic legacy of Jesus Christ. Constantine himself seems to have converted to Christianity partly out of political strategy and imperial exigency, and then proceeded to use the cloak of Christianity for his own purposes of maintaining power.

Most American Constantinian Christians are unaware of their imperialistic identity because they do not see the parallel between the Roman empire that put Jesus to death and the American empire that they celebrate. As long as they can worship freely and pursue the American dream, they see the American government as a force for good and American imperialism as a desirable force for spreading that good. They proudly profess their allegiance to the flag and the cross not realizing that just as the cross was a bloody indictment of the Roman empire, it is a powerful critique of the American empire, and they fail to acknowledge that the cozy relation between their Christian leaders and imperial American rulers may mirror the intimate ties between the religious leaders and imperial Roman rulers who crucified their Savior.

I have no doubt that most of these American Constantinian Christians are sincere in their faith and pious in their actions. But they are relatively ignorant of the crucial role they play in sponsoring American imperial ends. Their understanding of American history is thin and their grasp of Christian history is spotty, which leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by Christian leaders and misinformation by imperial rulers. The Constantinian Christian support of the pervasive disinvestment in urban centers and cutbacks in public education and health care, as well as their emphatic defense of the hard-line policies of the Israeli government, has much to do with the cozy alliance of Constantinian Christian leaders with the political elites beholden to corporate interest who provide shelter for cronyism. In short, they sell their precious souls for a mess of imperial pottage based on the false belief that they are simply being true to the flag and the cross. The very notion that the prophetic legacy of the grand victim of the Roman empire - Jesus Christ - requires critique of and resistance to American imperial power hardly occurs to them."

Other reviews you might find interesting are here, and here.

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