Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part II

Where can we look to find the enduring impact of Christ upon culture and society? This is a “big picture” question but it is also a very personal existential question. Where can we trace God’s providential working in history,universal history and our individual lives, without admixture with evil (as in my case with Texas religion)?  The rather shocking conclusion (at least for one emerging from Christendom): Christ made no permanent or enduring impact on culture. Human culture has certainly been impacted at various points and by various means but culture is not itself an enduring medium. Cultures come and go so that the enduring redemption of Christ is not to be found in an enduring human social structure or city. As Hebrews 13:14 states it, “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”

What is a city other than a particular social arrangement, a hierarchy, an institution, an enduring structural entity? Is there no fully formed, immanent, enduring City?  The primary exhibit in a counter-argument was/is Christendom – the fusion of Church and State which produced what seemed to be a new form of culture. Christendom gave us, it could be argued, the rule of law, a new improved social moral compass, modern medicine and the hospital, and it contributed to unmatched artistic, scientific, and technical achievements. All of this came attached to a new understanding of human dignity that tended to end various forms of slavery, the details of which can be seen to have not only undermined Christendom but points toward the “outside the city” perspective of authentic Christianity.

Katharine Gerbner, author of Christian Slavery, notes that the fusion of Christianity with colonizing and enslaving produced a combustible situation. The slaves, rather than what is often presumed, were refused admittance to the Church, as the condition of their slavery was premised on their pagan status. As the slaves became Christians, in spite of the effort of their masters, the incongruity of the faith of the masters with the New Testament was obvious to the slaves. Typical is the story of Marotta, an African woman, who writes to the Queen of Denmark pleading that she intervene on behalf of black Christian women being beaten by white people for carrying Bibles and attending worship meetings. Gerbner describes the fact that the slaves presumed, like Kierkegaard, that the established church of the masters was not Christian.[1] Gerbner traces the rise of white supremacy as the alternative to what she calls “Protestant supremacy” as the justification for slavery.

It is no great strain to locate the more authentic form of the faith in this situation. The slaves, like the first century Christians, have no enduring city, no enduring political structure, no social organization in which to find a home. Isn’t this precisely the point of the writer of Hebrews? This is the way Christianity is supposed to be. Those in the city who have the power serve at the top of a hierarchy (ecclesial or secular) and are enabled to enslave, dispossess, and control, cannot possibly be part of the authentic Kingdom. The likelihood of this, according to Jesus, would be on the order of a camel passing through they eye of a needle. Paul warns Christians not to be bound by the principalities and powers of this world, Jesus tells us to give away all that we have, and the writer of Hebrews depicts both Judaism and Christianity as upsetting and subversive – to Babel, to Egypt, to the orders of human power. Christ, Paul, and the entire New Testament describe a faith that is not bound by law, by social expediency, by established religion, or by human government. “My Kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus explains to Pilate. Christians are to be outside of every city, every system of power, every form of life which accrue wealth and power.

Christendom, while it held out the promise of an immediately accessible enduring city, is primarily a warning of the evil to which this confusion gave rise. The inquisitions, genocide, Antisemitism, and the new technical capacity to slaughter and torture in the name of doctrinal purity, all of this adds to the case that the light that was produced was not worth the candle it required. Two things to note about Christendom: it failed – the churches of Europe are emptied, modern atheism and agnosticism reign wherever Christendom was strongest. Christendom failed largely due to the weight of the corruption and evil it produced. The modern period is post-Christian or at least post-Christendom. The Church no longer shares in political power, and the majority in most of the western world do not count themselves Christian. It may seem that as Christians we are left with nothing to cling to. Certainly, we have no enduring city, no enduring political structure, no social organization in which we can find ourselves at home. This is precisely the point of departure to an authentic Christianity which would endure the shame with Christ outside of the city.

When Christianity coalesces into settled structures with hierarchies which can produce safety for the majority, perhaps, this is precisely when it is not Christianity any longer. Where Christians are bound to institutions, political or social orders, then they are clinging to the cities of man. The eschatological city is not from this world. The guerrilla band gathered outside the city is the only place that the city from God can be enjoyed. The eschatological break with the world is an ongoing condition. All things are continually being made new and Christians are strangers and pilgrims.

Think again of the confrontation of Christ with Pilate. The Jews had coalesced into a single body, uniting themselves with Rome: “We have no King but Caesar.” One man must die that the nation might be saved. They had caved in to the logic of empire. In this logic we need to continually be offering up human sacrifice outside the walls of the city. Where the Church has wed itself to secular power it has needed its various Pilates in the same way the Jews needed Pilate. The Jew must die that the nation be preserved. The Muslim must die that we be given our safety. The Stranger, the alien, the poor, the naked, must be kept out, they must be sacrificed. Don’t we need Pilate, Rome, or America, to harbor us safely inside the City?

To the contrary, salvation in Christ is a complete liberation not only from the constraints of elemental existence (the stoicheia), but also from the death dealing power of the city.  Both Hebrews and Paul describe the most powerful of institutions – Mosaic law, religion, and culture, as insufficient: having been delivered only by an angel through a mere human mediator (Moses), and had operated only, in the words of David Bentley Hart, as a kind of probationary “disciplinarian” (paidagogos) till Christ had set us free.

“For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews12:18-24)

Christianity is primarily the announcement of this New City, this New Kingdom breaking into – invading – the normal course of time and history. Christianity so reverses the sacred truths of the established religions that Christians were considered irreligious atheists. They did not uphold Rome but counted it an honor to be found on Roman crosses. Where this apocalyptic vision is traded for a settled way of life with its own institutions and structures, whether they are Roman, English, American, Texan, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or “simply Christian” (as in the Restoration Movement motto), then it seems we have entered a new sort of Christendom. One world must be relinquished, given up, abandoned, and I assume this is a prolonged process. This life-style of departure, of going outside the city marks an authentic follower of the one who calls us to join him outside the city gates.

I am not sure I can escape Texas, but isn’t this the Christian task; to unmix the admixture of faith as we have received it, to render ourselves homeless, to depart, to denationalize, deinstitutionalize, to go outside the city?

 

[1] Here is the link to the interview with Gerbner http://readingreligion.org/content/interview-katharine-gerbner-author-christian-slavery.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part II”

  1. Paul,

    It seems that you are simply asking for believers in Jesus to be holy. But isn’t it the purpose of our holiness to go back into the culture where we are not citizens to influence that culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ? So called Christendom is possibly the greatest enemy of the true believers, yet somehow we are to be difference makers within that context in some way. If we do not engage our culture(s), especially the predominant Christendom culture, are we not forsaking the call of Christ on our lives?