Friday, May 19, 2006
BY VALERIE TARICO
Tens of millions of Americans will flock to movie theaters to see the big screen version of Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code. Beyond all the wild fictional story-play, the movie calls attention to the very real forces of human politics and ambition (and human faults) that have shaped Church history and continue to shape Christian priorities.
In the first centuries of Christianity, literally hundreds of small groups interpreted the figure of Jesus in different ways: as God but not human, as human but not God, as God made human, as human sacrifice, as a pacifist or a political messiah, as virgin-born or human-sired, married or divinely celibate.
It was not until the fourth century that one faction won out. Catholic orthodox doctrines were established by decree. A diverse set of sacred writings was narrowed down to an official Bible. And competing points of view became "heresies" that were systematically eradicated, through book burnings and ethnic cleansing when necessary. (Note that virtually all American forms of Christianity, whether Catholic or not, build on these early decisions.)
How did politics shape this process? Well, one of the key events, the Council of Nicea, was convened by the emperor Constantine. He faced the risk that disagreements within Christianity would fracture his political holdings. The participating bishops were under not-so-subtle pressure to reach agreement on a set of doctrines - and these, by definition, must be compatible with maintaining the Roman Empire.
The bishops themselves were regional authorities who also were invested in consolidating territory. In this context, any form of Jesus worship that was pacifist, or communal, or mystical would have been simply incompatible with the decision makers and the decision process. Such forms of Christianity have cropped up repeatedly in the last 2,000 years, but they are not the kind of religion that best supports political power.
In recent years, politicians have again begun courting Christians, and Christians have again gotten the heady taste of political power. Holy empire, now called "dominionism," gleams in the eyes of many. Evangelicals, who created a leadership vacuum by rejecting denominational ties, have been brought together instead by a group of organizations whose agenda is largely social and political: Focus on the Family, The Christian Law Association, Family Research Council, Operation Rescue, The Christian Coalition, and others.
"We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism. We want theocracy. Theocracy means God rules," Randall Terry once commented. Many of his less outspoken brethren agree.
As in the past, an unholy alliance of political authorities who seek a Christian power base and Christian ideologues who hunger for political power has encouraged the rise of a very specific kind of theologies: theologies that are compatible with empire, warfare, wealth, and suppression of dissenting opinions. Christians who seek to serve love and truth have two buffers against such distortion of their faith: knowledge and questions. By understanding how political forces and human history have shaped, manipulated, and exploited the Christian faith in the past, we all gain power to resist such manipulation in the present.
Valerie Tarico is a Seattle psychologist and writer.