During our current lectionary cycle, we’ve been downright spoiled with the scholarship that Ched Myers, Wes Howard-Brook (right) and Sue Ferguson Johnson bring every Thursday with their weekly comments on the Gospel passage. When Wes is not busy teaching at Seattle University, serving at the local soup kitchen, leading the weekly Bible Study in his home, participating in liturgical direct action, hiking up Tiger Mountain or making Sue a latte, he spends his free time researching church history for his next publication. Last week, his Empire Baptized: How The Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected (Orbis) was released for public consumption. We sat down for a long-distance dialogue about what to expect next.
RD.net: What were the circumstances in your own life that led to writing Empire Baptized?
WHB: Two major realities led to this book. First, in doing Come Out, My People!, the contrast between the New Testament’s clear message of embodied resistance to empire and historical Christianity’s embrace of empire jumped out at me. Second, in teaching undergrads who are often deeply and rightly suspicious of “Christianity” as well as older and often lifelong church people, I regularly experienced the shock people express when they discover that, for instance, Jesus not only wasn’t concerned with “how does my soul go to heaven,” but wouldn’t even have understood the question!
I had inherited the Yoderian narrative [Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder] of “it was great for three centuries, but then along came Constantine,” but several things led me to question that story. For instance, that Constantine embraced “Christianity” did not explain such things as many churches’ obsessive focus on right “doctrine,” sexual ethics, and lack of regard for social injustice. I wanted to find out, at least for myself, what “really happened.”
RD.net: But Yoder’s “Constantinian concubinage” has served as such a compelling and concise narration of the tragic turn of acculturation! What, then, really did happen to Christianity in the decades and centuries before Constantine?
WHB: The short answer is that Jesus came out of the cultural context of Israel, and its understanding of God, humanity and creation. But the church writers of the 2nd-3rd centuries came out of a very different cultural context and shared a different set of presuppositions about those basic realities. For instance, the biblical understanding of being human is an interspersing of “earth stuff” (adamah) and YHWH’s spirit (ruach). But a Greek philosophical understanding saw humans as flesh, spirit and “soul” (psuche). What was important to them was “rising above” nonhuman creation, to one’s “soul,” which is what distinguished humans from other “lower” creatures.
At the same time, they understood language very differently. What one never sees anywhere in the Bible is a quest for “right words” about God and such, but that became quickly a key aspect of “orthodox” Christianity.
Finally, mostly in North Africa (for cultural reasons), church writers embraced the Roman sense of authority and power related to “space” and “office,” hence, developing “officials” who were “authorized” to do things such as baptisms. Again, nothing about any of that in the New Testament.
Some of the results, beyond what I’ve already mentioned:
-rampant misogyny and anti-Judaism
-strong hostility to any theological notions not within what those who became known as “church fathers” thought was “orthodox”
-lack of concern with the poor (other than to provide basic food as part of the bishop’s “patronage”)
-lack of concern with nonhuman creation
-embrace of the empire, other than its “idolatry”
RD.net: Don’t we see some of this stuff in the New Testament though? For instance, Paul’s first letter to Timothy (and elsewhere) has a homophobic admonition along with the infamous “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission…she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Or would you read these types of passages with a context to explain away the homophobia and patriarchy?
RD.net: Is there a simple litmus test that radical disciples can utilize when discerning “forgeries” of Christian witness: whether pseudo-Pauline texts or Church “fathers” or contemporary Christian pastors, priests and prophetic figures…and how can we ensure that we are infusing humility into our assessments?
WHB: There are two issues here: one is “forgeries,” such as the Pastoral Epistles, written in someone else’s name to “tame” the message. As far as I’m aware, the PEs are the main example of this category.
The bigger question is, which voices are the roots and branches of the Gospel of Jesus? That, of course, is what the paradigm of “religion of creation vs. religion of empire” is all about. Table 1 in COMP (reproduced in Empire Baptized, and attached here for convenience, along with Table 26 which shows how Jesus proclaimed and embodied the “religion of creation”) is meant to serve as such a “litmus test.” EB uses it to test the lives and writings of the church writers in Alexandria and North Africa, in the crucial centuries after Jesus when “Christianity” was forged. Some texts are clearly one way or the other; others are compromises, just as our lives are in the midst of empire (e.g., using the big corporations and government resources that enable us to have this conversation). It’s up to each of us as individuals and as communities to discern when and how we can “come out” from the way of empire and move more fully into the way of creation.
RD.net: What surprised you most in your research for Empire Baptized and what do you anticipate being your most “controversial” point(s)?
WHB: SO MUCH surprised me: the virulent anti-Judaism and misogyny, the endless ad hominem attacks on opponents, the complete rejection of the whole notion the “reign of God” as something earthly. Let’s just say that these guys would not have embraced “watershed discipleship.”
Controversial? I guess it depends on what a particular person is holding on to about their idea of “Christianity.” That so many things that most people take for granted as part of “being a Christian” are not the least bit based on the Gospel of Jesus, such as: “right doctrine,” “saving one’s soul” so it can “go to heaven,” church as hierarchy, celibacy as “holier” than sexual engagement….