Mark Van Steenwyk and the inferiority of Christianity

I like this provocative and nicely weighted take on Christian imperialism, ancient and modern, by Mark Van Steenwyk at The Jesus Manifesto. He makes the point that the Christianity we have inherited – even if we regard ourselves as dissenters – is the product of imperialism in one form or another, whether American, British or Roman, and that this may have rather profound and difficult implications for how we regard the essential legitimacy of Christianity.

If we are to challenge imperialism, we must not only try to disarm the deadly idea that the supremacy of Christ legitimizes the supremacy of Christians. We must also, I believe, disarm the idea of Christ’s supremacy. If our idea is that Jesus was a humble servant when he walked among us but will, some day, come to kick ass and essentially cast all non-Christians in hell, is it REALLY such a leap that a nation of Christians would want to get a head start on that? And if they did, is it really so morally reprehensible?

With a dig at the collection of essays edited by Piper and Taylor, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, Mark suggests that if Jesus is the ‘un-king’ – or we might say, particularly in light of Philippians 2:6-11, the anti-Caesar – we should hesitate to speak so confidently of the supremacy of Christ.

If we understand his rulership, supremacy, and Lordship by his teachings and actions, then his supremacy looks an aweful [sic] lot like servitude. Yet you don’t see many books with the title “The Subservience of Christ in a Postmodern World” or conferences on the “Subservience of God.”

Good point. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to speak of Christ’s inferiority than of his superiority?

Well, yes and no. Mark argues that in Philippians 2 Jesus’ ‘rule’ is inextricably tied to his humility and servanthood’. But what exactly does ‘inextricably tied to’ mean? Does it mean that this rule is irrevocably subverted and redefined by the path of servanthood and suffering by which it is attained – to the point that rule effectively and ironically is servanthood, which is what Mark appears to be claiming? Or does it mean that the only way to arrive at the fulfilment of Isaiah 45:23 and the acknowledgement of the sovereignty of Israel’s God by the nations was by the way of faithful suffering?

I am less idealistic than Mark. I think that the New Testament conception is much closer to Isaiah’s robustly political-religious vision than to the heightened moralism of modern dissenters from imperialism. As much as the emperors no doubt ‘deliberately co-opted Christianity for the cause of Empire’, it also has to be recognized that the church co-opted empire for the sake of the sovereignty of Christ. This is what it meant in concrete, historical terms for Jesus to be given the name which is above every name. In a very real sense, the conversion of the empire was the fulfilment of the New Testament conviction that Christ would inherit the nations. It is interesting to note, in this connection, what Peter Brown has to say about Augustine’s support for coercion:

He saw no reason why the normal pressures by which any late Roman local community enforced conformity on its members should not be brought to bear against schismatics and heretics…. Pagans were told simply to “wake up” to the fact that they were a minority…. The entire world had been declared, more than a millennium before the prophets of Israel, to belong only to Christ and to his Church: “As of Me, and I shall give you the uttermost parts of the earth for Thine inheritance.”1

Christ inherited because he was willing to walk a path of suffering and death – and (we should not forget) because others were prepared to follow him down that path. But that eventual inheritance cannot be depoliticized; it cannot be reduced or restricted to this supreme moment of humility, servanthood, and inferiority. Christendom, for all its failings, and more or less as we have come to know it, was the inevitable outcome of New Testament expectations regarding the future of Christ and his people. Just as Israel expressed the kingship of YHWH through its concrete existence as a kingdom amidst powerful and often overbearing nations, so the church through its existence as empire came to express the empire-wide or even global sovereignty of the God who raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him judge over the nations.

No less than the national paradigm, the imperial paradigm for the existence of the people of God proved itself to be ambiguous, deeply flawed, and thankfully impermanent. Perhaps the way forward after Christendom, after empire, as Mark suggests, is to reassert the ‘inferiority’ of Christianity – we certainly cannot afford to forget the defining moment of the cross in the ever-unfolding story of the people of God. But the larger narrative suggests that in word and deed and in our concrete existence as a prophetic people we need to say something about the relationship of the Creator God to the whole earth.

To that end, we are slowly fashioning a new postmodern, post-imperial, global paradigm. My guess is that after Christendom, after the legacy of the epic clash with pagan authority, the issues of sovereignty and supremacy will not be the priority. It is more likely to be threats to the character and quality of created life that will preoccupy us – the debasing of material life, the degradation of community, the discrediting of worship, and so on. But we can be sure of one thing, which is that the emerging paradigm will be as ambiguous, flawed and impermanent as those which it supersedes.

  • 1. P. Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (2003), 91.