Deny Christ and Make America Great Again

Twenty years in Japan provided me an alternative perspective on the fusion of religion and nationalism as it occurs in this country and as it must have felt in the first century.   Hirohito was once regarded as a living deity, directly descended from the Sun Goddess, and all citizens were required to acknowledge this, though, given their acquiescence this need not interfere with their own private religion.  As in Rome, private cults were allowed so long as they did not interfere with public acknowledgment of the power of the State in the form of the Emperor.  Christian worship was allowed, in the period leading up to the Second World War, with the proviso that all the Christians, at the beginning of any worship service, first acknowledge the Emperor by bowing to his photograph (which every church was required to display). 

The arguments for bowing to the emperor, originally made by the Meiji government, were that this was not a religious act as Shinto, the State religion, was not itself really a religion.  Shinto, it was argued, is more of a national ethos – too simple and universal to be regarded as a distinct religion.  There are many religions in Japan but Shinto is “the Way” that provides identity to all Japanese.  Apologists of the State religion would argue, “what harm could there be in simply bowing before the representation of the national identity.”  Great pressure was brought upon individuals to incline the body ever so slightly in acknowledgement of the Emperor.

The early and most famous incident was when Uchimura Kanzo (perhaps Japan’s most famous Christian) refused to bow before the portrait of Emperor Meiji and was fired from Tokyo Imperial University.  In the prewar period many, including the grandfather of one of my students, were imprisoned for their unwillingness to offer up even this token amount of regard.  What the ruling authorities of Rome and Japan recognized, and what seems to escape Christians in the United States, is that acknowledgement of the state only requires a token representation but this token is supremely important.  It is enough to “leaven the whole batch.”  Only the slightest acknowledgement is enough to incorporate the principalities and powers into our faith so as to reduce it to a civic religion.

The novel and film Silence portray the argument of the State apologist, himself an apostate priest (based on a true historical figure), in his attempt to get Christians to conform only slightly. “It is only necessary to move the foot only a tiny bit so as to escape death.  All one need do is lift the foot, move it forward, and set it down.  An ordinary act that is a daily occurrence.  Be reasonable, why would you want to die for this.  The image upon which you set your foot is of no great importance.”  The voice of Christ eventually cries out to the Priest from His image in the fumie: “Step on me, go ahead and step on me.  This is why I came into the world so as to be trodden on by man.”  This small token, this slightest of movements, everyone involved understands, is enough to empty this man’s Christian faith of all meaning and power.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of Japanese Christians died as they were unwilling to move their foot a few inches.  That measurement stands as a harsh testament to any church which unashamedly worships at an altar emblazoned with the mark of Caesar.

The Church in Japan today has rid itself of every vestige or emblem of the State.  No Church, of which I am aware, would consider introducing the National Flag or an image of the Emperor into the church building.  Like the first Christians, Japanese Christians understand that where State purposes are imposed into worship, no matter in what form or to what degree, the entire religion is made to conform to those purposes.  What subtly takes place is a displacement of the teaching of Christ so as to accommodate the state religion.  To argue that the state does not constitute a religion and that it can be made to accommodate the purposes of Christ is precisely the argument of the Meiji elites.  As one Christian explained, “We were convinced that Shinto is not a religion and then were made to bow to the Emperor as part of our religion.”

As Brian Zahn describes the process, “The problem is this, when we separate Jesus from his ideas for an alternative social structure we inevitably succumb to the temptation to harness Jesus to our ideas – thus conferring upon our human political ideas an assumed divine endorsement” (Farewell to Mars, 20).   The Japanese fostered this in the Meiji period, attempting to force Christianity into an accommodation of national purposes.  It seemed, after all, to play this role for both the British and the Americans.  The Japanese recognized that western imperialism and colonialism was so effective as manifest destiny provided a religious impetus to violently conquer and rule.  Japan would become a colonial power precisely through imitating this fusion of state and religion.

A Christianity focused on souls going to heaven and bodies at the beck and call of the state is itself the remnant of a Constantinian faith squeezed by the purposes of empire.  As Zahn describes it, in evangelicalism Jesus is reduced to “being the Savior who guarantees our reservation in heaven” while being used “to endorse our own ideas about how to run the world.”  Constantine is the first ruler who fights under the sign of the cross but the result is a form of Christianity that is perfectly malleable to whatever Caesar or lord might wish to employ it for his own ends.  The church, in this form of Christianity, is left to rule in a disembodied spiritual realm while the state offers up marching orders.  This dualistic form of faith would have left the Jews slaves in Egypt – worshipping God in their heart while their hands were kept busy making bricks for Pharaoh. There would be no need for real world physical deliverance and no need for an actual incarnation.  In its worst forms, already confronted as the religion of the anti-Christ in the New Testament, this is precisely the tendency of a devil inspired theology.

Given the notion that Christianity is mainly about going to heaven the first Christians need not have subjected themselves and their children to martyrdom.  A small genuflection here, an emblem of the State there, and Jesus in my heart – such an American theology would have saved so much bloodshed for the martyrs of the Church.  What thousands have died resisting is openly embraced in evangelicalism.  “With little awareness of what we are doing we find ourselves in collusion with the principalities and powers to keep the world in lockstep with the ancient choreography of violence, war, and death” (Farewell to Mars, 20).  In this civic religion one can take up the cross of the state and imagine it to be the cross of Christ.  One can fight for the purposes of human empire and imagine that violence and killing is for the Kingdom of God.  One can fight for freedom without distinguishing whether this is the freedom of Christ or the state.  In other words, this is a religion which has so prostituted itself at the altar of Caesar that it bears little resemblance to New Testament Christianity.

The first Christians had no notion that their faith could be relegated to a cultus privatus (a private religion) which was certainly allowed for in Rome.  Theirs was a public faith with its own politic, its own King, its own economics, its own unique ethos and culture, and its own undivided loyalties.  The Kingdom of God is not one that can align itself with the kingdoms of this world as its very existence is aimed at providing refuge and deliverance from the slavery of these cultures of death. The long and hard teaching of Jesus has to do with the orientation which this Kingdom will take to the coin of the realm of this world’s kingdoms – violence and death.

No one suspected that the Messiah would die as a mode of defeating an economy and politic built on the absolute of death.  The disciples were prepared to die a traditional death of violent resistance but the notion of laying down the sword so as to take up the cross was the hardest lesson learned.  Jesus death is not simply a sacrifice to or for God, but is an advance on the enemy through a reorientation toward death itself.  The death of Christ and the death of the martyrs, who would take up the cross, takes the shape it does precisely because the Christian cause is over and against the empires which presume death (and fear of death) is an absolute.  Prince of Peace, Savior, Lord, and even Lord and God are titles Caesar claimed as he wielded the power of death.  Jesus takes these titles and the titles of Messianic Kingship to establish an Empire based on hope of resurrection and a life of death acceptance.  Thus, the Gospels focus on the passion as this is the culmination of Christ’s life and teaching on the cost of discipleship.

The very nature of the world order is such that following Jesus means one stands opposed to the method and goals of this world’s kingdoms. If this were not the case Jesus need not have headed toward Jerusalem, he need not have admonished Peter to put away his sword, and Christian martyrdom could have resembled Peter’s first understanding.  He, and we all, could go down in a blaze of glory whacking off ears and heads (clearly the intended target) for human notions of glory.  The Constantinian Jesus, the Byzantine Jesus, the German Jesus, the American Jesus, is the Jesus of Peter’s first understanding.  “A sword for the Lord” but no crosses for these martyrs.

The Jesus which bids Peter come and die is the Jesus which he denies three times.  His denial is the endpoint of his refusal to let Jesus go up to Jerusalem to die.  Peter is still imagining the Davidic Messiah on the war horse and he has missed the implications of the humble donkey (the foal of a donkey), the foot washing, the last supper, the predictions of death, and of raising the temple in three days.  In other words, he and all those who imitate his mistake have missed the Gospel.  Those who confuse the purposes and goals of empire with the purposes of Christ’s Kingdom deny the one who calls them to “take up the cross and follow me.”

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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.

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