Christianity and Empire
Jesus as Central Reference Point
Sunday, October 17, 2021
The first of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Eight Core Principles is that “The teaching of Jesus is our central reference point.” Affirming Jesus as central provides Fr. Richard and all of us with a confidence that comes from the Gospel. Richard writes:
Without the assurance of Jesus’ teaching and example, I would not have the courage or the confidence to say what I say. How can I trust that things like nonviolence, the path of descent, simplicity of life, forgiveness and healing, the preference for the poor, and radical grace itself are as important as they are, unless Jesus also said so? This discernment is made even harder, however, by the fact that the actual Jesus agenda is so rarely emphasized in most Christian churches.
In her autobiography, Dorothy Day (1897–1980) paraphrased theologian Romano Guardini by lamenting, “the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified. . . .”  Doesn’t that hurt? And yet, maybe it’s true. In many ways, the institutional church does not seem to believe its own Gospel.
It wasn’t always this way, but starting in 313 CE, Christianity gradually became the imperial religion of the Roman Empire. It was mostly top-down and hierarchical for the next 1700 years. As the “imperial mind” took over, religion had less to do with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, inclusivity, forgiveness, and simplicity, and instead became fully complicit in the world of domination, power, war, and greed itself.
Lay theologian and educator Verna Dozier (1917–2006) highlights some of the significant shifts that took place when Christianity became an imperial religion:
It is hard for us to understand what happened to the people of God under Constantine. Surely the church got a breathing space from persecution. . . . Constantine dreamed of restoring the ancient glory of the empire, and he believed that could be best achieved through Christianity. Constantine himself was not changed; the church was. It became the imperial church. Christian worship began to be influenced by imperial protocol. Incense, the sign of respect for the emperor, began to appear in Christian churches. Ministers began dressing in more luxurious garments, processions and choirs developed, and eventually the congregation came to have a less active role in the worship.
More important than any of this, however, was the kind of theology that developed. The gospel of good news to the poor now saw riches and pomp as signs of divine favor. The coming kingdom of God was no longer a fundamental theme. In the view of Eusebius [c. 260–c. 340], the father of church history, the plan of God had been fulfilled in Constantine and his successors. Beyond the present political order, all that Christians can hope for is their own personal transference into the heavenly kingdom.  [DM Team: CAC teacher Brian McLaren calls this version of Christianity an “evacuation plan for the next world.”]
This week’s meditations highlight how we lost the essence of Jesus’ message when the church aligned with empire—and the painful results that followed.
 The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (Harper and Brothers: 1952), 150.
 Verna J. Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cowley Publications: 1991), 73, 75.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, unpublished talk, Canossian Spirituality Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, December 3, 2016; and
“Christianity and the Creation: A Franciscan Speaks to Franciscans” in Embracing Earth: Catholic Approaches to Ecology, ed. Albert J. LaChance and John E. Carroll (Orbis Books: 1994), 143.
Story from Our Community:
I give to the poor and apologize for not giving more. I am not a rich person, although I live on much more than a dollar a day. So, I serve God. My wife and I have worked to ease the lives of those less fortunate, but now we are older and so I pray. I pray for God to give me the strength to write to those in charge to look seriously at the condition of the poor. I am sickened by our leaders’ allowing multi-billion-dollar corporations to pay no taxes, which could well go to improve housing, education, and salaries of those oppressed in our world. —Russell C.
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