Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity had a profound impact on history. The imperial values of the Roman Empire were pitted against the values of the Gospel, as expounded by Christ in the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek etc). That tension and contradiction has reverberated right down the ages. Many Christians, while on the surface subscribing to the teachings of Christ, were in reality taken up by the values of worldly empire, materialism and militarism rather than the renunciation, simplicity and non-violence that Jesus advocated.
Although we do not have the Roman Empire with us today, we have other superpowers. The values of Empire – and a global neo-liberal economic structure that favours the rich and the powerful – are still very much in our world. If at all there is an unseen global enemy, it has to be the unjust economic system that these powers nurture. It is a world ruled by a small group of fabulously wealthy elites who promise an utopia of worldly riches and bliss but instead oppress the poor and downtrodden even more.
In this piece for the Herald, I tried to show the impact that Constantine’s conversion had on Christianity and how the early dynamism was eaten up when Christianity became the religion of the Empire.
For the first couple of centuries after Christ, the early (Christian) communities were very much the Church of the Poor, sharing their possessions and working for the common good. “I have come to bring the Good News to the Poor,” were Jesus’ first words as he embarked on his mission. Since then, the message of Christianity has been widely seen as a critique of the rich and powerful.
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity had positive and negative implications for Christianity and the Gospel message. Constantine’s chief legacy was to ensure that the persecution of Christians ceased. Christianity, as the state religion, became more widely known to the farthest reaches of the Empire.
But Christianity also assumed some of the imperial trappings of the Roman Empire, though some laws were liberalised a little and Christian worship was tolerated. Much of the trappings of imperial power had nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus but everything to do with the quest for earthly power. Gradually, the Emperors turned Christianity into a religion of the rich and powerful while the Church confined itself to formalism and ritualistic legalism and basked in triumphalism.
Constantine unfortunately introduced the sword into Christianity – a prelude to the use of violence in the name of Christianity. He ironically and tragically put the cross – a symbol of Christ’s suffering and oppression – on the shield of the Roman soldiers, the majority of whom were pagans.
It set the stage for the abuse of Christianity to justify violence in centuries to come: the bloodbaths and torture during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquistadors (the Spanish conquests that brought swathes of Asia and South America under colonial rule).
These were the dark eras in church history, for which the late Pope John Paul II, to his lasting credit, apologised. In a marked contrast to earlier ages when the church was allied to the superpowers of the day, John Paul earned the ire of the present day superpowers, the United States and its allies, when he rejected arguments in favour of the war on Iraq and condemned the US-led invasion in 2003.
Other transformations occurred when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. The reign of God, under which the early Christian communities believed they were ruled, was compromised as many mainstream Christians tried to conform with the values of the Empire and the reign of the Emperor.
Instead of the liberty they enjoyed as the people of God, there was the obligatory profession of an imposed religion. Instead of trying to detach themselves from worldly possessions and sharing their possession in solidarity with others, Christians were now content to perform the bare minimum ‘obligations’ to conform with the ‘natural law’.
As Antonio Gonzalez observes in his book ‘The Gospel of Faith and Justice’, (Orbis Books, a Maryknoll publication) the non-violence, great love for the community and the sharing of possessions, which was distinctive of the early Church, ceased to be practised widely. Instead, many began to regard these practices and way of life as the preserve of ‘superior’ Christians who opted for religious or monastic life.