A couple of weeks ago, at the height of the Duck Dynasty controversy, as conservative evangelicals sparred with both progressive Christians and the secular Left regarding Phil Robertson’s cherry picked hermeneutic, blogger and speaker Shane Blackshear captured the essence of the hullabaloo with one single Tweet. He wrote, “The scariest thing about the #DuckDynasty situation is that it shows how ill equipped American Christians are for a post-Christendom world”. And who can blame us since Christians have enjoyed cultural hegemony in the West for the last 1, 600 years. But the church’s status as benefactor to a patron state did not come without a high price to the message and methods of the Gospel. If one can even remember her humble origins, Christianity existed for 300 years as a minority religion in a Roman world that was largely hostile toward it. This fledgling Christian community saw the cross of Christ as the central political event in all of history, and realized the blasphemy of identifying any earthly political order with the reign of God. However, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, a cosmic revolution took place resulting in the alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day. Constantine therefore became the “symbol of the decisive shift in the logic of moral argument when Christians ceased being a minority and accepted Caesar as a member of the church.” For a religion existing up until this point as a social ethic critiquing domination, violence and oppression, this move toward cohabitating with empire was catastrophic; it meant embracing, rationalizing and becoming the very oppressing agency the church had for so long fought against. Thus, the history of western civilization is one where church and state became consensual partners birthing a culture marrying clergy and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities whereby the church legitimized the activities of the state and the nation enforced the decrees and status of the church. But if we’ve learned anything from the incessant culture wars, it’s that “the project, begun at the time of Constantine, to enable Christians to share power without being a problem for the powerful” is thankfully coming to an end. But not without grumbling, peevishness and the wolf cry of persecution from the far Right. American Christians echo the complaints of the Israelites during the Exodus, “Oh that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Christendom, as we sat by at our Presidential prayer breakfasts and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into a post-Christian desert to die!” (paraphrase of Exodus 16:3). Having experienced special status as the favored social institution of empire, American Christians cannot imagine life apart from their dependence on the very system that perverted and enslaved the Gospel in the first place.
Since her inception, American Christians have had a hard time resisting the temptation to confuse our particular and fallible set of political and economic ideologies with the cause of Christ, justifying the use of power and cultural dominance to coerce cultural morality. Generation after generation of evangelical Americans believe that America is great because America is good, leading to the false assumption that insofar as The United States is a capitalistic democracy, she is Christian, and that supporting democracy is a means to support Christianity and vice versa. The first step in shedding this over lording past is to confess our national sin of compromising the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s kingdom with the American establishment, creating a dangerous patriotic fervor promoting the sweeping sanctification of American political, economic, social and foreign policy. But thankfully, as religious pluralism expands in the U.S. and the fallacies of Christendom are unmasked, this era of Christian cultural dominance is finally coming to an end. Rising up in her place is the existence of a peripheral, multi-cultural church living as seeds scattered in the global diaspora, prevailing as witness against the poverty of our accommodating civic religion. As Stanley Hauerwas states, “Christians would be more relaxed and less compulsive about running the world if we made our peace with our minority situation.” As citizens of heaven, living in pluralistic communities here on earth, the church must re-educate her residents for a brave new world where she no longer has the power and authority to bend society to her will. Perhaps the toughest habit to break deriving from our privileged past is the assumption that if Christians do not rule society, it will surely slide down the slippery slope to anarchy and chaos.
A new culture is emerging where Christianity exists as the marginal minority seeking fresh ways of thinking, speaking and acting as an alternative community with different social, economic and political paradigms. Western Christians no longer enjoy the seat of power, but rather find themselves in a world of plurality, where all worldviews and religions are welcomed in the public square. And, much like the first three centuries of Christian history, this new era provides incredible opportunities, not least of which is to purify the message and the methods of the church. For starters, Stuart Murray writes that in this new age, the church will be characterized by mission instead of maintenance. We’ve lived far too long under the false ideology that the church was established to manage the apparent downward spiral of culture, giving validity to the will to power so needed to control the institutions that shape culture. “Yet the effects of seeing the world this way have not been encouraging. The points at which we have felt most sovereign over our neighbors have been the points in which history has most evidently ‘gotten out of hand’”. And while Christendom allowed the church to exert control over society, in the post-Christian West, the Body of Christ can only exert influence through invitation, functioning as a signpost for the coming Kingdom of God.
As expatriate’s in a strange land, the church has the opportunity to offer the world a new ethic, if for nothing else because she finally understands what it means to be the outcast. When this new, disenfranchised community is now confronted with evil, she models forgiveness instead of vengeance, because she knows what it is like to feel the wrath of empire. When she is tempted to engage in social stratification, this new powerless community of Christ equalizes the status of women, slaves and the immigrant because she has become one of them. When the world is fat on the gluttony of economic self-consumption, the church can finally act to transform economic principals by insisting on the economic principles of Shabbat and Jubilee instead of further defending and exploiting unfettered capitalism. Ultimately, in this new environment, the post-Christian church moves from colonizers to subalterns, seeking to find our way in a world we no longer create and control. And, much like Daniel in Babylon, we bear witness to a new way of life by exposing the lies, domination and violence so readily available and utilized by the powers that be. It’s an incredible opportunity. As Murray points out:
We really do need to embrace post-Christendom now. The term ‘post-Christendom’, contrary to the claims of some critics, does not imply the withdrawal of Christians or the church from the public realm. Rather, it suggests that the nature of our involvement in politics, culture and society needs to be renegotiated in light of changing circumstances and changing theological convictions. The ‘post’ aspect of the term invites us to leave behind the compromises of the past; the ‘Christendom’ aspect is a reminder of the legacy with which we must grapple and from which we must learn as we explore uncharted territory.
The end of the Christian world as we know it will create space for the recovery of authentic forms of Christianity. In fact, ‘Post-Christendom’ may very well prove to be far more Christian than Christendom. As Christians embrace the reality of this new age and recognize the opportunities as well as the challenges, perhaps we can find the courage and creativity to re-imagine a church on the margins of empire that abandons her propensity to rule and instead accepts her God given role to serve.
Let us welcome a return to the worldview of the early Christians who saw their countercultural lifestyle without power and privilege as the liberating work of God, freeing them, and us in the process, to live as a faithful witness to His coming kingdom.