Christian Disestablishmentarianism


As we move toward Easter, I find it helpful to recall the cosmic anarchy that the resurrection represents. Jesus was blowing apart all systems of domination that deform the basic dignity of the human being — including the threat of death.

When Christians are threatened with death, they understand it as being “threatened with resurrection,” as poet Julia Esquivel put it.

Here’s an excerpt from U.K.-based Jonathan Bartley’s commentary on Easter and Anarchy from Ekklesia:

Easter means freedom rather than control. At least that was the way that it started out.

Some early Christians seem to have celebrated it twice. There was the Passover that took on new meaning for the new Jewish sect following Jesus’ celebration of it with his friends just before his crucifixion. There was also Pascha a commemoration more in tune with the Easter we celebrate today.

But it was anarchic in the political sense too. The Passover called to mind the subversion by the Children of Israel, who defied Pharaoh’s authority and went their own way. Down the centuries Christians have developed various theological motifs to explain what they believe happened when Jesus died. But for the early Christians, the emphasis seems to have been squarely on the Resurrection. This was the moment of liberation at which God demonstrated victory over all evil and oppression – including the empire that put Jesus to death. It was the proof that even the greatest of powers could be overcome.

Easter was also the time when baptisms would happen – that Christians too were ‘raised with Christ’. It was the clearest symbol that the allegiance of early Christians did not lie with the state. This was the point at which a new citizenship of God’s Kingdom was embraced, one which challenged all other forms of citizenship, and most notably that of Rome. It committed them to a set of values and behaviours, and a way of living which was often at odds with the social and political norms of the Empire. Christians called it ‘the Way.’

But in the Fourth century, this presented a problem for the emperor Constantine who was intent on marrying Christianity with the power that had often been its persecutor. The death of Christ was a bit embarrassing. And it wasn’t just that the emperor was running the empire which had put the founder of the faith to death. The way of Christ – loving enemies, forgiving and turning the other check – was particularly ill suited to the business of Government. Baptism threatened allegiance to a state that needed to wage war, imprison and torture.

Bartley, Ekklesia co-director,  is author of Faith and Politics After Christendom: The church as a movement for anarchy (Paternoster, 2006) and The Subversive Manifesto: Lifting the lid on God’s political agenda (BRF, 2005). Read the whole piece here.

How would you write your baptismal vows if you knew they threatened allegiance to the State?

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