Constantine, Columbus, and christian Nationalism
by Carl McRoy & Christopher C. Thompson | 20 October 2022 |
It was roughly 2,000 years ago that Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is coming, but not in a way that you will be able to see with your eyes” (Lk. 17:20 NCV).
It is as if these words were spoken with the year 2022 in full and plain view. Christ challenges us with the assurance that the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed imminent. It just isn’t going to manifest in the same manner that the empires of this world have sought to assert themselves. Daniel 2 serves as a perpetual reminder of the efforts of Satan to depose the God of heaven. His modus operandi is always imperialism: force, might, violence, and subjugation.
In some strange twist of irony, Christians (and Adventists, in particular) have adopted imperialist frameworks instead of maintaining fealty to the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a most awkward arrangement, given that we know how this epic saga ends. What follows here is an effort to reframe and review the narrative of this world’s grand scheme to build yet another tower that reaches heaven.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work out. Yet, what we should notice are the consistent underpinnings of injustice, oppression and disempowerment that are antithetical to the gospel and the Kingdom of God.
Defining the Terms
The reader will find the following glossary necessary:
- christian Imperialism: when Christians become antichristian by embracing the offer of empire which Jesus rejected (Matt. 4:8-10; John 6:15; 18:36). Not trusting in the sword of the Spirit, they lust for Caesar’s scepter. A little “c” and BIG “I” are used to indicate the recessive and dominant traits of this mutant religion. Its insatiable appetite for empire overpowers its capacity for empathy.
- christian Nationalism: christian Imperialism’s offspring that syncretizes national and religious identities to consolidate power, using Jesus as their mascot and crusading against whoever is the scapegoat du jour. Again, the BIG “N” indicates the character trait that wins out when you attempt to amalgamate the irreconcilable value systems of God and mammon.
- White christian Nationalism: when Christians of European ancestry reject the solid rock teachings of the brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew, Jesus, and idolize a Scandinavian Christ built upon the sinking sand of socially constructed whiteness.
- Columbussing: When rural and suburban residents discover and dispossess the primitive culture and prime real estate occupied by the poor urbanites in desperate need of missionization and gentrification.
Reframing the Big Picture
We often frame the progression of Christian history around each religious iteration’s faithfulness to the Ten Commandments. We tend to evaluate them based on adherence to the Decalogue. The Reformation was good because it brought us once again closer to the commandments. Constantine was bad because Constantine changed the fourth commandment.
This kind of limited view fails to capture the wider, larger idea. The primary corruption of Constantine isn’t the Sabbath-to-Sunday issue, but the collusion of empire and Christianity to form what’s later called Christendom. The aims of the church and state become inseparable and utterly corrupt. When Christianity becomes coercive, virtually nobody is converted, but almost everyone is corrupted. It is this spirit that leads to the 1260 years of religious oppression. It is this spirit that established the Doctrine of Discovery and spawned its offspring, Manifest Destiny. All the Protestants followed suit when they got political and military power to do so.
This is the needed area of reformation that almost no denominations want to seriously undertake. This is what makes our democracy so fragile. This is a far greater threat to religious freedom than secularism or issues of sexual orientation. History has shown that no external forces have exercised the capabilities to persecute Christians like the church itself, when it confuses God with government.
A Bird’s Eye View
Jesus said no to empire in the wilderness temptation. In the 300s, church leaders such as Eusebius were tired of being persecuted by the empire and embraced the new privileged status made possible by a still idolatrous Constantine, who saw the uniting potential of Imperialized christian propaganda (because he was only a co-emperor, along with three others, of a divided Roman Empire).
The result is the pursuit of a universal church under the leadership of a supreme bishop based in Rome. Always seeking to expand and extract, this Rome-based Imperial Church sends missionaries/mercenaries to “discover” new lands, because if the inhabitants aren’t Christians, then they can’t rightfully own the land, although they live there. (This is connected to the Roman notion of terra nullius, but that’s a different discussion).
All European powers, Protestant and Catholic, drank the wine of materialism, racism, and economic exploitation in the name of Jesus as they colonized Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The toxicology report is found throughout our legal, political, and economic history until the present. The Doctrine of Discovery was instigated by popes but ratified through American legislation and court decisions into the 21st century.
So let’s circle back to Constantine, because Constantine really is a good place to start. In AD 312, God allegedly sends a vision to Emperor Constantine I, commanding him to conquer by the sign of the cross. As Lactantius and Eusebius popularize the tale, christian Imperialism is born. Church leaders accept the temptation Jesus rejected and embrace the power structure Jesus warned against. Claiming to be Peter’s successors, popes took up Caesar’s sword after Jesus told Peter to put his down. Then the legacy of the popes became downright iconic when in AD 449, Pope Leo I wrote his famous Tome and urged Emperor Theodosius to help settle a religious dispute – an example of the collusion between Christianity and Imperialism that would bring 1260 years of religious hegemony and persecution as predicted in the Bible (Dan. 7:25; Rev. 12:6,14; 13:5).
The popes built a nearly indestructible brand of christian Imperialism. This is especially manifest in the year 1452, when Pope Nicholas V issues papal bull Dum Diversas to bless the plunder and enslavement of Africans. “We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] …with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate… pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ … and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”
And this is the beginning of the virility of what would become known as modern colonization. This is the direct antecedent to why, as has been popularly recited, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Then “In 1493, Columbus stole all he could see.”
Also In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull, Inter Caetera, granting newly “discovered” lands to Ferdinand, Isabella, and Columbus. It read, “Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty… this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread. . . and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” Alexander cursed any interference with “the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.”
Then in 1496, Patent Grant is issued by King Henry VII of England, saying, “Be it known and made manifest that we have given and granted…to our well beloved John Cabot… to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands… or provinces of heathens and infidels… which before this time were unknown to all Christians. John and his sons… may conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands.”
In 1513, El Requerimiento was drafted for Conquistadors to announce to the indigenous people they were about to invade. Included in it were these words, “Acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world…and the high priest called Pope…But if you do not do this…I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall…make war against you…we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them.”
Religious freedom seekers?
While we often sanitize the efforts in the New World beneath the veneer of asylum seekers in search of religious freedom, what actually transpired was a remixed manifestation and a new chip/offshoot from the old imperialism block. In 1682, Puritan Cotton Mather seeks the capture of William Penn and “a hundred or more of the heretics and malignants called Quakers.” He recommends “selling the whole lot to Barbados, where slaves fetch good prices in rum and sugar,” in order to prevent the Lord from being “mocked on the soil of this new country” (Christa Reinach and Alan J. Reinach, Politics and Prophecy, 94).
In 1823, the US Supreme Court ruling on Johnson v. McIntosh codifies the Doctrine of Discovery, clarifying that “the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves…The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity.” And in doing so, further perpetuating the brutality of the empire and once again asserting christian Imperialism.
Then in 1860, the first Indian boarding school was established in Yakima, WA. Churches played major roles in this mission of forced assimilation. Not until the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 did Native American parents have legal rights to refuse the removal of their children to be sent to boarding schools or adopted into white families.
In 1878, US Senator Aaron A. Sargent’s Chinese immigration speech showed the christian Nationalist ideology behind the Chinese Exclusion Act when he said, “Let the missionary go to China and convert these men from their heathenish practices, wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb, and then, being fit for American citizenship. . . let them come as immigrants” (Learning from All the Faithful: A Contemporary Theology of the Sensus Fidei, edited by Bradford E. Hinze, Peter C. Phan, 59).
Then in 1898, The Wilmington Insurrection sprang when the white supremacist “Redemption” movement staged a coup against duly elected black and progressive white civic leaders of Wilmington, North Carolina. After their November campaign of burning, looting, murder, and banishment, Redeemers took control of the government, in the name of Jesus. It’s helpful to note that this is just one instance of a mass “reclamation” effort underway during this time.
In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion tried to rid China of outsiders. It was suppressed by allied European and American military forces, claiming they had to protect their missionaries. When will we learn that coupling missionary initiatives and military invasions causes resentment of the gospel? Nevertheless, just three years later, in 1903, President William McKinley’s explanation for colonizing the Philippines manifested the same spirit.
I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way…they were unfit for self-government—and…that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.
In 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous theologian who was executed for opposing the Nazi regime, was at one time infected with christian Nationalism. He is quoted saying, “Growth [of the Volk, or the German people] requires expansion; an increase in strength involves pushing aside other individuals…Should not a Volk experiencing God’s call…be allowed to follow that call, even if it disregards the lives of other people?” (Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 11-12). Yet, this should be surprising because there were many christians who saw several benefits to the expansion of this regime, and even some Adventists did as well (cf. Harold Alomia, “Fatal Flirting: The Nazi State and the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies, Vol. 6 , No. 1, Art. 2).
In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower signed HR 619, requiring that “In God we trust” appear on all currency. Senator Charles E. Bennett pushed this bill to combat “materialistic communism” because apparently, capitalism isn’t materialistic at all. The fact is Senator Bennett only trusted a white god with his silver coins and green dollars, given that the senator was among the signatory of the Southern Manifesto of 1956. Yet, there was an entire multipronged movement afoot to combat this very type of exclusionary politics and governance. In 1964, In “The Ballot or the Bullet?” Malcolm X contested the status quo in American life. Might we have had a better handle on White christian Nationalism if we had paid attention? Malcolm argued, saying, “The whole church structure in this country is white nationalism…that’s what they preaching, white nationalism. They got Jesus white, Mary white, God white, everybody white – that’s white nationalism.”
In the sixty years that have followed, our nation has constantly pressed the envelope of Christian Imperialism, Christian Nationalism, and all the rest. In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruling on City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation reaffirmed the Doctrine of Discovery, saying, “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery…’fee title [ownership] to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”
Then on January 6, 2021, a day that will go down in history as Insurrection Day, the whole world watched the invasion of the US Capitol by neo-Nazis wearing shirts with genocidal slogans; neo-Confederates parading their seditious flag; terrorists seeking to hang the vice president on gallows built beside a cross; and christian Nationalists invoking a prayer and praise service after sacking the congressional chambers. All with the goal of overturning the 2020 presidential election results. And here we are in 2022, where growing numbers of American churches are hosting biblical citizenship courses because they want the church to rule the state. And the president of one of the world’s largest seminaries now identifies as a christian Nationalist.
The King Is Coming
In Daniel 2, the conclusion of the vision is a profound cataclysmic climax and resolution. While the entire statue is carefully curated, sculpted, and molded, suddenly there is a violent and devastating disruption. A small stone is dislodged from a mountain, “but not with human hands,” and boomerangs to obliterate the entire magnificent structure, and that little stone becomes a great mountain in the place of the image. The absence of human hands mining, smelting, sculpting, or molding raw materials into consumer goods shows that God’s new order isn’t dependent on any of our socio-political innovations. God won’t be alloying any of the statue’s material, but grinding those power structures into powder and dispersing their dust in the wind.
This is why we must be cautious about how closely we embrace any economic or cultural agenda. We have to live in that mysterious tension of being in the world, but not of it. It appears that even Adventism struggles with global Columbussing in the name of mission, sometimes setting up small, hegemonic satellites of Adventism that deny authentic Indigenous expressions of faith in favor of Euro-American norms. Could this, too, become chaff with the establishment of God’s great mountain? God’s redemption of the world is coming – not through deployment of imperialism or nationalism, but through their demise.
Carl McRoy is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, host of Message magazine’s “Your Liberation Library,” and author of Yell at God and Live, R U Tuff Enuff, and Impediments to Power. He enjoys quality time with family, posing as an amateur historian, and shooting pool.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.