Friday, October 26, 2012

Constantine's Legacy

Besides being the 17th anniversary of my ordination, Sunday, October 28, is the 1700th anniversary of a much more historically significant event – the Roman Emperor Constantine’s victory over his imperial rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome. What made that event significantly different from any of the many other battles over imperial succession was, of course, what happened after. According to the received accounts, when the victorious Constantine entered Rome in triumph the following day, he omitted the customary concluding visit and sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter. Whatever that act may have been understood to mean in its immediate context, subsequent events invested it with profound meaning, for it was followed a few months later by the famous Edict of Milan, making the practice of Christianity legal in the Roman Empire - and setting the stage for Christianity eventually to replace classical paganism as the religion of the Empire.

The traditional accounts also credit Constantine’s victory to a vision the previous night. Whatever he actually experienced that night, the result of Constantine’s victory was not just imperial toleration of Christianity but increasing imperial embrace of Christianity. As emperor, Constantine constantly concerned himself with Church affairs, contributing greatly to the long-term Christianization of Roman society – for example, making Sunday a legal holiday in 321, convening the Council of Nicea in 325. In the process, he set in motion the complicated Church-State entanglement that has characterized Western societies and states until our own time.

But it wasn’t just the Roman Empire and Roman society that changed profoundly. So did Christianity – at least as regards its self-understanding vis-à-vis the State.

Jesus himself, of course, had acknowledged the legitimacy of civil authority and the obligation to pay taxes. St. Paul taught that political authority derived from God, and that obedience to lawful government is necessary not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants [Romans 13:5-6]. The 1st Letter of Peter commanded: For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right [1 Peter 2:13-14]. To his disciple Timothy, Paul urged that supplications, prayers, intercesions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity [1 Timothy 2:1-2] - a sentiment echoed a century or so later by Tertullian (c. 160-220), who called for prayer for emperors, their ministers, for the condition of the world, for peace everywhere, and for the delaying of the end [Apologeticus, 39].

All this referred, however, to what would eventually come to be classified as legal justice - i.e., the obligations which  citizens owe to society. But what about the moral obligations of political society and the duties of statesmen? Notwithstanding early Christian respect for the State, the early Christians simultaneoulsy saw the State as something "other." St. Paul, for example, famously (and forcefully) forbade using secular courts to solve disputes among Christians [cf. 1 Corinthians 6]. While there were certainly some cases of Christians who were soldiers and perhaps even some other public officials here and there, involvement with the pagan state was presumptively problematic - inhenrently implicated as it was in pagan cult.

Then, all of a sudden soemthing hapopened that no one had really expected or prepared for. The Emperor himself became a Christian. Soon enough, the entire governing apparatus of the Empire (and of the successor states that followed its "fall") was in Christian hands. Suddenly, how a Christian governs, the duties of a Christian officeholder, and the obligations of Christian statecraft became salient moral issues. And so they have remained ever since.

There remain marginal, sectarian branches of Christianity which try to maintain a strict separation between themselves and the State, remaining as aloof as possible from politics, resisting military service, compulsory education, etc. For the rest of us, however, there is the unavoidable challenge of figuring out how to be at one and the same time a fully engaged citizen of  the secular State while remaining faithful - in public as well as in private - to the unique obligations of being a member of the Body of Christ. For all the talk about religion in this current election cycle, this challenge has been at the heart of Christian life in the world ever since Constantine's politically game-changing acceptance of Christianity.



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