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The Roots of Christianity and Empire

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It takes effort to recover the nonviolent ethic of love and forgiveness when Christianity serves empire.

July 27th, 2022

What happens to Christianity when it serves empire over God? What happens to Christians when we see both our religion and our politics as above criticism?

Living together inside God’s Great Story means honoring the universal dignity of every thing in creation. Yet, it becomes increasingly harder to be a loving presence in the world when our dominant systems’ capacity for love and justice are so thoroughly compromised. How did we get here?

In this article, Lee Staman, the librarian for the Center for Action and Contemplation, invites us to explore the roots of Christianity’s marriage to empire, following its path from a prophetic movement against imperialism to one that became dominated by it.

yellow bridge

As the ‘imperial mind’ took over, religion had less to do with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and forgiveness, and instead became fully complicit in power, war, and greed.

—Fr. Richard Rohr

A Movement Against Imperialism

Christianity was born at the beginning of one of the largest empires the world had ever seen. Less than 50 years old during the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire would go on for almost another 1,500 years. Much of that time would see Christianity develop as the religion of the imperial state, paving the way for things like the Holy Roman Empire to take root in Western Europe until the early 19th century.

yellow moon

The idea of Christianity and empire working in concert was unimaginable in the beginning.

—Lee Staman

The idea of Christianity and empire working in concert was unimaginable in the beginning. Jesus was crucified by Roman authorities as a political threat. He and his followers preached ideas that were antithetical to the ethos of empire-building, namely nonviolence and the love of one’s enemies. Jesus, steeped in the prophetic tradition of his Jewish faith, proclaimed that “the last shall be first” and “the meek would inherit the earth.”

The Beatitudes were contradictory to the motivations of imperialism, which seeks control over every detail within its borders, especially the concentration of might and wealth. The prophetic tradition, on the other hand, sought justice for the poor and oppressed above all else.

From the Persecuted to the Persecutor

The Christian ethic of love and service to the downtrodden saw a massive shift in how it was perceived in the early 4th century when Constantine declared that Christianity was no longer to be persecuted. Not only that, but it also became the favored religion of the Roman State. This favored status continued until, in 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the state religion.

Thus began the decline and sporadic persecution of “paganism” (the early Christian term for the broad variety of non-monotheistic religions) and we see, for the first time, what Christianity becomes when wed to empire. This is tragically played out, for example, in 415 CE with the brutal murder of the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia, by Christians motivated by political ends.

Sustaining a Prophetic Voice

Since the beginning, there have been responses to the religious, political, and cultural reality of Christianity and empire. In the 4th century, you see an exodus out of the cities to the desert often in response to the popular acceptance of Christianity within the Roman Empire. These desert fathers and mothers, according to Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and… believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.”

yellow fire

This impulse to distance, critique, and be a prophetic voice against the immensity that has been Christianity and empire shows up again and again throughout history.

—Lee Staman

Henri Nouwen continues, “The hermits of the desert were deeply conscious of the fact that not only the society but also the church had been corrupted…” This impulse to distance, critique, and be a prophetic voice against the immensity that has been Christianity and empire shows up again and again throughout history with monastic traditions like the Franciscans, Reformation groups like the Anabaptists and, in the twentieth century, Bonhoeffer, and the liberation theology movements of Central and South America.

How We Rise

In the modern era, examples of Christianity and the domination politics of empire can be seen in things like the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and, more recently, the rise of Christian Nationalism. Anytime there is domination, the prophetic impulses and foundations of Christianity rise to meet the spread of imperialism.

yellow arch

The moment the suffering symbol of the cross is placed in front of or as cover for empire-building strategies, Christianity has lost.

—Lee Staman

The moment the suffering symbol of the cross is placed in front of or as cover for empire-building strategies, Christianity has lost. It would take much effort, and still takes effort, to recover the nonviolent ethic of love and forgiveness that disappears when Christianity serves the needs of empire. There are many ways to manifest this loving effort in the world, and it begins with an exercise in oneness — keeping our connection to the suffering of the world with an open heart and a contemplative mind.

Reflect With Us

What aspects of “empire” have you stepped away from because they are not in alignment with a loving faith? Can you imagine creative ways to re-engage them and elicit change? Share your reflection with us. 


We Conspire is a new series from the Center for Action and Contemplation featuring wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Sign up for the monthly email series and receive a free invitation to practice each month.

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