“Welcome to Zingcreed, the Christian/Atheist blog where there are no banned thoughts. In this personal polemic, I think aloud about religion and life. I hope you get something from it!” Peter Turner, M.A. M.Sc.
The fourth century Roman Emperor, Constantine the First, was not a Christian, far from it; he worshipped the pagan sun god Mithras. How he came to effectively take over the early followers of Christ and point their church in a totally different direction to that in which it had been travelling is quite a story. It shows the church up as a human institution like any other: looking to survive and increase its fan-base at all costs, even though it meant compromising its principles and selling its soul to the devil.
Constantine destroyed early Christianity of the sort we read about in Acts and the church fathers. In exchange for their support he offered them tax breaks, imperial protection and more in a package the persecuted church hierarchy could not resist. Like the Mafia he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse! Although it was a total betrayal of what Jesus stood for, it could be argued that if they hadn’t caved in, the church would not have survived at all! His influence is still pervasive today. The only Christians to opt out of his brave new church were the persecuted minority sects like the Hussites and the Anabaptists a thousand years later which I have described in some of my “Red Christians” blogs. Leo Tolstoy pointed out the corruption of the mainstream faith in his later writings, and showed a way back to the original message.
So what was the church like before Constantine’s intervention?
- the church did not support the state
- Christians were generally persecuted and excluded from public affairs
- though some Christians were in the Roman army, the church advocated pacifism and was a force for peace
- the church was heavily taxed and received no state funds
So what happened?
In 312 C.E., Constantine was about to fight the Battle of Milvian Bridge (over the River Tiber which flows through Rome). The empire was run as two separate halves, and while Licinius was installed as the Emperor of the eastern half, a rival contender Maxentius had to be defeated if Constantine was to headup the western half. Like his rival, Constantine believed in omens and black magic. In a dream, he saw Jesus who told him to carry the sign of the cross into battle. (A generation earler this would have been outrageous to Romans and blasphemous to Christians.) The cross was duly painted on all his troops’ shields and banners. This may have been the traditional + sign, or more likely the greek letter Χ (chi) the first letter of the word “Christ” in Greek. Most Christians at that time used the symbol of the fish rather than the cross anyway.
Before the battle, Constantine had a second vision; he saw a flaming cross in the sky and the latin words “In hoc signo vinces” (In this sign you shall conquer) – a contradiction of Christianity and unutterable by Jesus himself.
He won and became emperor of the western half of the Roman empire. Henceforth:
- persecution and taxation of the church stopped. With fellow emperor Licinius he issued the Edict of Milan which legalised Christianity, without making it the official state religion
- he promoted christianity and used it to solidify his power, using state funds to establish and control the clergy
- the church became a major force in everyone’s daily life
- the church now supported the state and its wars. God now sanctioned killing! God took sides to help one band of killers triumph over an other, as the church prayed for victory
- conscientious objectors were excommunicated
- the prayer day of Mithras (sunday) was declared the official day of prayer and rest for the whole empire
- he built the church’s 3 greatest centres of pilgrimage which still stand to this day: St Peter’s in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
His mother, the Empress Helena, went to the Holy land where she claimed to discover relics of the true cross buried at Calvary. The cross came to replace the fish as the symbol of the religion.
Consider in conclusion the words of two men, the first a Mexican Liberation Theologian and sociologist, the second a leading French communist:
“It is …necessary to approach the image of Christ as a ‘protestor’, a ‘subverter of the economic and political order’, a ‘political liberator.’ Indeed these are the traits that are most fascinating for the so-called implicit Christians of today, or at least for those men and women who, though outside the visible boundaries of the churches, are committed to liberation and feel somehow near to Christ and Christians, as witness Roger Garaudy:
‘You concealers of the great hope of which Constantine robbed us, give it back! His (i.e. Jesus’s – P.T.) life and death are ours too! They belong to all of us for whom they have meaning – to all of us who have learned from him that the human being has been created a creator.’ ” (iv) (v)
(i) Kurlansky, Mark “Non-violence. The history of a dangerous idea” Vintage (2006)
(ii) Murray Stuart “The naked Anabaptist. The bare essentials of a radical faith” Paternoster (2011)
(iii) Stephenson, P. “Constantine. Unconquered emperor. Christian Victor” Quercus (2009)
(iv) Vidales, Raúl “How should we speak of Christ today?” in “Faces of Jesus. Latin American christologies” ed J. Bonino Orbis (1977)
(v) Garaudy, Roger ‘Le Monde’ (Paris) 25/12/1969 p.7
Also probably worth reading:-
Carroll, J. “Constantine’s Sword” Houghton Mifflin (2001)
Frend, W.H.C. “The rise of Christianity” Fortress (1984)