“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”
~ Justin the Martyr, early Church Father (100AD – 165AD)
“Hilarianus the [Roman] governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’
‘I will not,’ I retorted.
‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus.
And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’
Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: We were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.”
~ Perpetua, a young, well-educated, noblewoman of Carthage in North Africa and early Church Mother and martyr (203AD)
Years ago when I came to a crisis of faith and my belief in the veracity of the Bible, I turned toward Church history. I wanted to look to people who lived in the time closest to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. I felt like they could offer me a clearer glimpse into what Christianity was supposed to look like, even in the midst of their own cultural, socio-political, and patriarchal reality.
I collected all the source material I could find, dating back to 33AD. It was a two year journey of singular focus and study. As I encountered the era when Christianity gained imperial power (due to Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity), I saw subtle shifts in the way Christianity was understood. What had been a life-reorienting, society-blessing movement of faith grounded in practices of self-giving love and hospitality slowly morphed into a western-expansion Empire grounded in institutionalism and, at its worst moments, militarism.
I remember being sickened by the atrocities and violence committed in the name of Jesus after the Church settled into state power. I also vividly remember being convicted by the voices of dissent that called out to the Imperial Church to relinquish the nation-state agenda, repent, and take hold of God’s kingdom-agenda. These Christians were the vocal minority crying out to the Christian-majority to follow the true Christ as King rather than the co-opted Christ of the empire. In a world of western expansion and imperialism faithful Christians looked back to join the chorus of voices from the first 300 years of the Christian faith. The writings, teachings and Christian witness of the early Church fathers and mothers had their own problems, but at least they predated the discriminatory and violent acts committed by the Imperial Church.
The early Christians spoke of a very different understanding of Christianity, resulting in a peculiar way of life. Jesus’ sermon on the mount seemed to be their guiding ethic. The love of God and neighbor as commanded by King Jesus was their interpretive key for Christian living. They believed God saw something of Himself in all people and they should imitate Him by welcoming and caring for all. They also believed Christ could especially be found in the marginalized lives of the poor, the immigrant, the widow and the orphan. They were compelled to resist all forms of false teaching, fear-driven hatred, violence and injustice. Not only that, as much as they loved their country and countrymen, they refused to place their love of country above their love of Christ and neighbor, which included their nation’s enemies. They knew that even in all her glory, the kingdom of Rome would never outlast the Kingdom of God. Only one politic could govern their lives. They didn’t split allegiances.
The early Church fathers and mothers had their short-sighted pitfalls, just like the best among us, but one of the most beautiful things about the Christian faith is that God works in and through imperfect humans to bring liberating hope. Sadly, once Christianity married the Empire such imperfections led to more and more movements of dehumanization and death.
It’s almost like the early Church fathers and mothers knew that if the Church ever got entangled in nation-state power, the faithful witness of God’s kingdom would be harmed. Or maybe they knew enough about the human condition and the power of Empire politics that they were compelled to cling tightly to Christ as King.
Either way, one thing seems clear to me. The early Church fathers and mothers were unwaveringly committed to the peasant Nazarene as the promised Messianic King who emptied Himself of His divine rights, position, privileges and power for the good of all people. They kept before them Christ’s submission to state execution by the hands of his own people in collusion with the Empire so all people in all nations could know the liberating love of God. They held on to the teachings of the apostles who taught that love does no wrong to a neighbor and blesses enemies because love casts out fear. They understood that when fear enters into the human heart it seduces us to grasp for power and control and casts out love. And when love is cast out, death is all society has left. It’s especially true when the Church becomes entangled with the power of the nation-state.
We still have a lot to learn.
“To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of following the ancestral customs in which we were strangers to the covenants.”
~ Origen, early Church Father (185AD – 254AD)