Should Christianity Stand With the Oppressor or the Oppressed?
Before the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Christians had been hated and persecuted in the ancient world. Jews, from whose religion Christianity had arisen, had naturally considered Christians to be dissenting members of their own community, and had disciplined them accordingly. Meanwhile the Romans had been using Christians as a scapegoat due to Christian refusal to engage with the Imperial Cult or worship the Pagan gods. Christians were not actively sought out and punished in the Roman world, but rather were treated as members of an unimportant sect upon whom any Roman misfortunes could be blamed (the emperor Nero supposedly blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome and had them tied up and used as human candles).
Many early Christians were remarkably undisturbed by their persecution, with some even seeking out and welcoming martyrdom. At this time, Christianity was very much seen as a sect within Judaism; Christians were distinguished from other Jews only through their acceptance of the teachings and the martyrdom of Jesus Christ, and they often sought to emulate his humility in the face of persecution. Christians, whose church was founded by a persecuted pacifist who stood alongside the oppressed and the downtrodden, were quite happy to envisage themselves as persecuted martyrs who turned the other cheek to their oppressor’s wrongs.
The Effect Of Constantine
Early Christianity was therefore a church of and for the oppressed in society. Its members worshipped a man who had said that the poor and meek were not only deserving of sympathy and charity, but were blessed – and were destined to inherit God’s kingdom. Christians worshipped a man who had said that we should love our enemies and never pass judgement on others. They worshipped a man whose message was one of total and unconditional love and forgiveness. Their church was the church of the gospel, and it is hard to imagine how a church founded on such a radically pacifistic document could have evolved into the harsh and moralising institution that it has been at times since.
But at the moment that Christianity was adopted as the religion of Rome, an immense change had plainly occurred. From this moment on, Christianity became associated with the oppressor rather than the oppressed. It ceased to be a minor sect within Judaism whose martyr had preached of love and generosity, and it became a powerful ideology underpinning and consolidating the authority of the state. Its interests became clearly and inextricably bound to the interests of power and wealth. Christianity was used down the centuries that followed as a tool with which the powerful could control and oppress the population. It served as the official ideology behind regimes and agendas that were wholly incompatible with the generous and peaceful message of the gospel.
Silencing The Voice Of The Oppressed
In 1962 Pope John XXIII declared his intention to restore the teachings of the gospels to the heart of the Catholic Church by preaching liberation theology and what is referred to as the ‘preferential option for the poor’. Essentially the intention was to restore the Church to its rightful place as the church of the oppressed, and not the oppressor. This mission was taken up enthusiastically by Latin American priests, who preached compassion and social justice. Their message, which was essentially the message of the gospel, was considered to be a radical and dangerous threat to the Western establishment. A week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, six Jesuit Priests – all leading Latin American intellectuals – were, at the orders of the El Salvadorian government, brutally murdered by an elite battalion of soldiers armed and trained by the United States. Thus two decades of US intervention in Latin America, which had left a trail of blood and terror across the continent, began to come to a close. The crime of the Latin American intellectuals responsible for provoking the aggression was plain: they had attempted to give a voice to the voiceless. They had tried to do what Jesus did, and they had suffered a not dissimilar fate.
A Christian Choice
And so it is clear that the message of the gospel has always been threatening to the powerful and the wealthy in society. The gospel is a document which stands shoulder to shoulder with the persecuted and the downtrodden, and which makes the explicit claim that the rich and mighty shall find it hard to ever see God’s kingdom. It should come as no surprise that the primary effect of Christianity becoming associated with the strong and powerful has been the essential eradication – or at least the intense diminishing – of the message of the gospel in Christian theology. What Popes and Priests have had to say about Jesus has essentially become more important than what Jesus himself said.
Christians therefore face a fundamental choice: make peace with the established order of things by upholding the doctrines of the rich and powerful, who have for centuries been using the Christian faith as a method of controlling the minds and bodies of the poor and meek. Or stand, as Jesus stood, alongside the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless – and offer up the cross not as a symbol of proscription or control, but of unconditional forgiveness and hospitality. The generosity of Jesus was immense and unparalleled, and it would overthrow the world if it was embraced. His generosity was inhuman and incomprehensible, but it does provide an ideal for us as humans to strive towards, and perhaps one day to become worthy of.