OK, so it’s a bit of a cop out to say that Christianity would be great if only it were practiced properly – but I am far from the first to suggest it. G K Chesterton expressed it better when he proposed that Christianity had not been tried and found wanting… rather it had been wanted and never tried. Gandhi too, when asked once why he rejected the religion said simply: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Even the most cursory glance at the historical engagement of churches in public life shows that the love of enemies, forgiveness and ‘turning the other cheek’ urged by Jesus has been conspicuous by its absence. But many do not trace the beginning of the incongruity between the message and its outworking to the foundation of the faith. Instead they suggest that the real conflict began around the Fourth Century. Understanding what happened then, can shed quite a bit of light on what’s going on now.
It was the Roman Emperor Constantine who first brought Christianity to the heart of the empire. In so doing he left Christianity with an embarrassing dilemma. The early Christians had tended to take Jesus’ words at face value. Many had refused to serve in the military, and believed in a form of equality and justice which was viewed as subversive to the social order. The state had little in common with the faith. It was after all the oppressive institution that had put their founder to death, and subsequently unleashed waves of persecution against his followers.
But Christians now had to find ways of justifying their new position at its heart. They had to explain their complicity in torture, imprisonment and war. They had to work out why their part in slavery and the death penalty was suddenly acceptable.
The result was some very nifty theological footwork which involved explaining away or sidelining Jesus’ more difficult teachings. Some labelled them as naïve and impractical for the business of government. A public-private split ensued, in which Jesus’ ethics were relegated to the private realm of personal relationships, or another world after death. A different form of Christianity, it was argued, was required for public life.
The rest, as they say, is history. But 1700 years later, it is the Christianity of Christendom, rather than that which preceded it, that seems ill-suited to public life. And slowly it is dawning on many in the churches that Christianity is faced with a choice. It can hold onto its outdated approaches and be pushed out of public life completely – or it can think once again, as it did in the Fourth Century, about how it relates to the world around it.
The latter option is more likely, if nothing else, for reasons of expediency which have governed its approaches in the past. It’s just a shame that Chesterton and Gandhi aren’t around to see it.