It has been a well-known fact that narratives have been used by empires to control the collective consciousness of the populations they seek to dominate. This has been an ongoing practice that dates back to the earliest of empires and is currently practiced by the conglomerative empire of western civilization and most directly expressed by its embodiment of the United States. And yet empire cannot be limited to national institutions but has expanded through modernity to include numerous other institutions (or metanarratives) which seek to universalize and centralize their power. As such it is necessary to include the more general institutions of democracy, communism, socialism, capitalism, the marketplace, and even religions. Each of these asserts itself through the telling of stories. These stories often seek to gloss over the injustices incurred for the purpose of further universalizing their claims. Therefore, whether it is dictating its seminal narratives to the exclusion of Native Americans and the stealing of their land, the manipulative retelling of events to justify or lessen the recourse for the stealing of labor through institutionalized chattel slavery, or the violence and war incurred in the name of some god, each of these narratives perpetuate the unjustly oppressive treatment of peoples.
Regarding the church’s collusion in this, it is not only disturbing but alarmingly so how any entity can affect such disruptive changes among the Christian community (within which I identify) that causes its members to empathize with and gravitate towards centers of power regardless of how despotic their actions may be. Instead of toward aligning with the powerless and marginalized as scripture clearly directs the followers of Jesus, many in the church have turned to the empires of this world. This, however, is nothing new.
Looking back at the third century one easily sees the historical developments that led to the Constantinian paradigm shift in the church. What is often not noticed is how the nuanced interpretations of such events effect the larger perception which eventually changes the trajectory of the community. For instance, many interpret the visions of Constantine as his conversion and therefore the justification for the resulting violence and political manipulation that took place in the following years. This has been a conclusion in spite of Constantine delaying his baptism until just before his death.
Now admittedly there are current assumptions that are read into these events that affect one’s interpretation, such as “baptism does not equal conversion or salvation.” This is a typical belief held by most Protestants. Ironically this has allowed them the ability to side with Catholicism’s affirmation of Constantine as the first Christian emperor. This occurs by tying the conversion of Constantine to his initial visions. On the other hand, the typical Anabaptist belief is that Constantine didn’t convert but only seized the opportunity to take power and use a fledgling religion to change the religious landscape of the church by syncretizing it with the empire (admittedly these are oversimplifications of these perspectives).
This illustration demonstrates how depending upon which tradition you embrace determines how you will interpret this pivotal event in history. And it is in the interpretive telling and retelling of these events that attempts to control the dominant narrative. In the end whoever rules the region, their telling of and interpretations of the events will be prevail. The one who holds the most power is able to tell the story louder and more often thus silencing the hetero-narratives. What is interesting in this is that each of the tellings express some form of the truth. Each, however, over generalize, edit, and emphasize, thus misshaping the actual events into mythological narratives that push their perspectives forward.
I’ve been wondering most recently as to the hermeneutical effects of a narrative telling that acknowledges the subversive nature of Constantine’s attempts to manipulate the Christian church while also allowing for his conversion late in life when he was baptized? For the Anabaptist tradition and those who follow along these lines theologically it would require them to rethink the extent of Constantine’s role in this paradigm shift and allow for the wisdom of the church leaders in discerning whether he was ready for baptism or not. A question likely asked would be, for example, “Has Constantine converted sufficiently to the ways of Christ enough to be baptized into the faith?” From almost 2 millennia away it is easy to pass judgment upon the church elders’ decision to accept him into baptism, but the details regarding his catechism and conversion are not adequately available to us. Therefore we are left to either accept the wisdom or make speculative judgments.
This matters significantly regarding hermeneutical questions in this context. Hermeneutics has everything to do with the questions we ask regarding a narrative as well as the judgments with which we conclude. Judgments are inevitable and there is always some degree of speculation when such great distances of time are involved. Even when studying the biblical text, interpreters make speculative judgments regarding the narrative. The question is whether the contemporary reader will adequately learn the context of the narrative allowing said reader to limit the judgments in scope. Additionally, there is the question of trust in the interpretive process also. When does the reader apply a healthy level of skepticism and when is it appropriate to trust the narrative of the community? These questions require judgments to be made.
If we shift this conversation back to the more contemporary context of the church in the United States, what we discover is that those in power are maneuvering to control the narratives. There are obvious attempts to silence the hetero-narratives by means of providing numerous spurious claims with no supporting evidence. Moreover, some in the church have confused the US political ideological conversation as an adequate framework to express the faith based convictions of Christianity. Moreover, in the zealous attempt to legislate those convictions they have compromised their faith by partnering with the empire becoming complicit in injustice. The basis of this movement, I believe, is the confusion of the empire (or empires of this world) with the kingdom of God. There necessarily can be no alliance between the two. Jesus taught in his sermon that a person cannot serve two masters. Unfortunately, in the process of making these alliances, some in the church have positioned themselves as enemies of their brothers and sisters in the faith.
The point of all this is that in the midst of the competitive tellings of these narratives, it appears that some Christians have chosen sides. The proverbial elephant in the room is that large swaths of the Christian church in North America (and perhaps Europe) have become apostate abandoning the “gospel” teachings of their founder, prophet and their God. The compromises made have put the church on a path that leads away from the cross and into the arms of those responsible for crucifixion. Instead of plodding the via Delarosa bearing their crosses on this way, many in the Christian community have chosen the gilded streets and ornate halls of power. Regardless of how the story is spun and the narrative manipulated, the “Truth” remains the same. And his teachings provide ample information to make plain how the events are unfolding. May God have mercy on the church, but not at the expense of justice for the least and most vulnerable in this world.