Spirituality and Social Movements
A Spirit-Led Christianity
Sunday, November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent
The God who became flesh in Jesus is the hidden God of whom the prophets speak to us. Jesus shows himself to be such precisely in the measure that he is present via those who are the absent, anonymous people of history, those who are not the controllers of history, namely, the mighty, the socially acceptable, “the wise and the learned” (Matthew 11:25). —Gustavo Gutiérrez
Much of what Jesus said seems to have been understood and taken to heart during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. Before the imperial edict of 313 that pushed Christians to the top and the center of the Roman Empire, values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, and love of enemies were common within the faithful community. The church at that point was still countercultural and non-imperial—a social movement for the reign of God. After 313 we lost that free position. Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning war, money, and authority.
If we look at texts in the hundred years preceding Emperor Constantine’s edict, it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army. The army was killing believers. Christians were on the bottom but, by the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and was now killing the pagans. In a two-hundred-year period, Christians went from being complete outsiders to directing the inside! Once Christians joined the inside group, they had to defend their power. There’s not much room for any talk of the cross or powerlessness anymore.
Official Christianity slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point, which is probably why what we now call the movements of “religious life” began and flourished in the desert after 313. People went to the edges of the church and took vows of poverty, living in satellites that became “little churches,” without ever formally leaving the big Church.
Francis and Clare of Assisi formed their own “social movement” through a foundational agenda for justice. They lived in humility and simplicity outside the dominant social, political, and religious systems. For the Franciscans who followed in their footsteps, the first priority was living the spiritual life in a visible way that shouted Gospel love! Their life, close to the bottom, was where they hoped to learn the science of love. Their small communities were to be patterns for living and disseminating the transformative power of the Gospel.
Imperial Christianity is always about power. It seldom teaches about nonviolence, forgiveness, inclusion, simplicity, mercy, love, compassion, or understanding in a primary way. Yet Spirit-led movements within Christianity have flourished and continued to emphasize the values that defined the early Church and made it so threatening to the social order. I believe that any future church will be led by the Spirit back to those foundational values, making it a much flatter and more inclusive community. The examples of non-imperial movements within Christianity strive not towards protecting their own power and influence, but toward supporting the supreme work of love flowing into the world.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48–51; and
“Powering Down: The Future of Institutions,” “The Future of Christianity,” Oneing, vol. 7, no. 2 (CAC Publishing: 2019), 43, 46–47; and
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 146.
Epigraph: Gustavo Gutiérrez, The God of Life (Orbis: 1991), 86.