‘Humanity is waiting for something other than blind imitation of the past. If we want truly to advance a step further, if we want to turn over a new leaf and really set a new man afoot, we must begin to turn mankind away from the long and desolate night of violence. May it not be that the new man the world needs is the nonviolent man?’ Martin Luther King Jr, Where Do We Go From Here? p 68
One of the challenges Western Christianity faces today is how we ‘see’ ourselves. Here in the UK the church in its various guises has a history of power and persecution and persecuted, depending upon the tradition into which you examine and explore. Without doubt however, for centuries, parts of the church have enjoyed a significant role and place within society, a force of good and evil, a place of power closely aligned with Kings, Queens, rulers and governments.
‘Constantinianism’ – named after Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Empire, and thus transformed Christianity from a persecuted minority into the religion of power – is our history here in the West, and the church has continued to wrestle with its past. This shift meant that ‘the church is no longer the obedient suffering line of the true prophets; she has a vested interest in the present order of things and uses cultic means at her disposal to legitimise that order.’ John Howard Yoder, Original Revolution, p 65-66
Yoder makes an important and powerful point.
In Christian seminars and conferences today the language and dominant narrative is one of Empire.
In the City of God Augustine writes, ‘…justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules and obedient city according to his grace forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone…’ (889-90, 19.23)
Augustinian ethics dominate Western Christian accounts of society and how the church is called to live within their culture. As a result, the language at conferences is of how Christians can inhabit places of power and influence, how we might be involved in the writing of policy, in business, in media and arts, in leadership at all levels. As Yoder points out above, the church then works hard at influencing and changing the present order of things within every sphere of society according to her vested interests. At Christian conferences I hear the celebration and triumph in voices as stories are shared of how Christian politicians and business leaders and people of influence have directly transformed major decisions within the nation.
The problem is, such an account of ethics will inevitably lead to violence.
So much of ‘leadership’ talk and training within Christian conferences is business speak, a pragmatic approach, one that seeks to promote success, growth and security. It is about having bigger churches, more influence, greater abundance and greater glory.
It is a theology of glory and empire.
And it is a theology of violence.
Martin Luther King demands us to consider another way, the path of nonviolence that truly leads to transformation.
Any talk of transformation that has within it an implicit empire and glory theology will always lead to violence, and a god of exchange who will only bless when we get the sacrificial formula right.
King shows us that the way of nonviolence is the true path to transformation, because it is the way of the Crucified One, the pathway of peace, the course of compassion, the majesty of mercy, the freedom of forgiveness.
If I am honest, I despair at the messages streaming out from church leaders and Christian conferences because they consistently imitate the glory and empire thinking that pervades so much of our society. With the onslaught of nostalgia and sentimentality, as well as a desire for security to protect our possessions, alongside a spirituality that is devoid of crucified suffering love and weakness, and thus promotes strength and honour, then I feel thoroughly pessimistic for our churches.
We need people who will speak another word, a word of peace, a word of nonviolent transformation. This is truly another Way, a Way where power is defined through weakness, where success is defined through the Cross, where ministry is understood through compassion. As Dr King says,
‘A dark, desperate, confused and sin-sick world waits for this new kind of humanity and this new kind of power’. p 69