Church, Gospel & Empire

During a drive from Leeds to London a while ago my son challenged me with a question; why are there so few Christians who are saying challenging things in our society.
We talked about how the church seems strangled and often behaves in society like a domesticated pet and where its role seems to be ‘blessing the status quo’ rather than providing life-affirming and healthy challenge to our society.
We talked about how Christians are often so confused about the moral implications of their faith (so for example, should Christians be for or against war, pro – or anti Islam, support homosexuals or condemn them). We discussed Peter Tatchell and reflected on his openly brave stance on a range of current issues. After our in-car debate, we concluded two things:

  1. Like a polar bear stuck on a moving iceberg, the church has moved a long way from its starting point and the seeming firm foundation it has stood upon for many years is rapidly melting
  2. The church in its current incarnation needs to be ‘outed’- to speak up

I realised that my challenge was to understand where the church, (which if St Paul has it correct, holds the strategic role in the future of the universe), had lost its mojo. With anything lost, the best advice is always to look at where you were when you last had it. This approach led me through some great books and authors, but importantly to the book being reviewed here, ‘Church, Gospel & Empire ‘ by Roger Haydon Mitchell.
First, this book is Mitchell’s PhD Thesis so it is not an easy read. I had to re-read many of his pages. As an indication, in just the first chapter, there were more than 20 words which I had not come across before. However, whilst in the past this would have stopped me in my tracks, Mitchell’s theme feels so important that it felt like a book I should persevere with and keep my dictionary to hand. However, I think a glossary would help non-theologians like me.
Where did it all go wrong?
Mitchell’s thesis is that the church went adrift very early in its history, at the Christianising of the Roman Empire which was caused, he believes, by an ‘over-realisation of eschatology’ or perhaps, working too hard to construct the New Jerusalem. As a result, the church was absorbed within empire and this set a trajectory for the church’s alliance with political power, warfare and monarchy – for which the world is still suffering.

Constantine hailed as Roman Emperor in Eboracum (York)

He describes how the Roman Historian and Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius (AD 263-339) associated the future end time hope of the world with the alliance of church and the Roman Empire. As Mitchell comments, Church and the Roman Empire had moved from ‘opponents’ to ‘bedfellows’; from a radical Jewish sect opposed to the temporal authority of the Empire to a doctrine ‘encouraging imperial obedience’. Jacques Ellul, another author on my list, in his book, ‘The Subversion of the Church’ bluntly describes the same event; “whilst Jesus had turned down Satan’s offer to have the world, its powers and its kingdoms, the church happily conceded.”
From this beginning Mitchell then selects a number of key moments in history stopping off at certain points to illustrate how the church’s alliance with sovereignty and power has transposed over time.
For his second slice of church history, Mitchell turns to the medieval period and outlines the challenges being experienced by the Church of Rome, and Pope Innocent III who was facing territorial challenges from Islam, from the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) church and from German Kings seeking to extend their rule into Italy. Mitchell describes the wheeling and dealing of the Pope to win back territory and control, and how he sought alliances with the secular power of the German Kings to re-establish the control of the Roman Church. Also, he pinpoints the significant theological shifts which took place at the same time, such as the negotium crucis, which proposes that the ‘business of the cross’ is actually … warfare. This militarisation of the Christian life built upon the power of the labarum, (Emperor Constantine’s battle field sign of the cross) with which he conquered. Also, under Pope Innocent III, the chivalric knight became an ‘imitator of Christ’ and through its increased emphasis on the power of forgiveness available through the ‘rite’ of the Eucharist, the church had adroitly captured the propitiation market; further strengthening its own power and position.
Third, we re-visit the establishment of the Bank of England and see how this was established with an eschatological zeal which recognised and celebrated the sovereignty of money. Mitchell contrasts this with the alternative approach of Gerard Winstanley of the Digger movement whose radical proposal to cultivate common land for the benefit of the poor was snuffed out by the church establishment within months of their movement beginning.
Fourthly and finally, Mitchell turns to the 20th century and explores the century of the spirit; by looking at the small but significant impetus of the Pentecostal movements to establish communities that were intent on living free from this sovereign power but which he admits was eventually overpowered by the more insidious American Dream ideology.
There follows then a discussion of a socialist critique of power and sovereignty and how religious and Christian concepts are borrowed to describe their alternative to community of ‘selfless love’ etc.
Towards the end of his book, Mitchell begins to pull together the threads of his argument into a discussion of the Kenotic power of Jesus and coins his phrase ‘kenarchy’. This is clearly the next part of Mitchell’s project after this book has set the scene.
In conclusion, Mitchell’s book is a challenge due to its concentrated academic vocabulary but I found this an effort well worth making as the story he weaves and the conclusions he draws begin to shape the real challenge within this book, how might the church be shaped in the future. I hesitate to use the word church as the Christ-centred movement which Mitchell is pointing towards is as far removed from current perceptions of church as you can get. This is an ecclesia for the occupy movement, and points towards a faith which radically challenges the status quo. There is no safe place when reading this book. Not only does the book present a serious challenge to ‘comfortable’ faith, it also invites us to re-discover the ethics of Jesus and rediscover living a Jesus-like life in the power of the beatitudes.
(Roger Haydon Mitchell.- Church, Gospel, and Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West . Wipf & Stock Publishers (15 Nov 2011) ISBN-13: 978-1610977449)

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One thought on “Church, Gospel & Empire

  1. i have already this book, and agree that it is a formidable read – it arouses the intellect, the often forgotten gift of God to humanity, it offers a reaffirmation of the transforming giift of love (in its final part) and makes clear again that re-birth in Christ inevitably brings a person into opposition with contemporary economic power. Strongly recommended – and helping to heal the gap between the spiritual and the political.

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