Empires prefer a baby and the cross to the adult Jesus
From Constantine to Bush, power has needed to stifle a revolutionary message
Giles Fraser == Friday December 24, 2004 == The Guardian
Every Sunday in church, Christians recite the Nicene Creed. "Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures." It's the official summary of the Christian faith but, astonishingly, it jumps straight from birth to death, apparently indifferent to what happened in between.
Nicene Christianity is the religion of Christmas and Easter, the celebration of a Jesus who is either too young or too much in agony to shock us with his revolutionary rhetoric. The adult Christ who calls his followers to renounce wealth, power and violence is passed over in favour of the gurgling baby and the screaming victim. As such, Nicene Christianity is easily conscripted into a religion of convenience, with believers worshipping a gagged and glorified saviour who has nothing to say about how we use our money or whether or not we go to war.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 312, after which the church began to backpedal on the more radical demands of the adult Christ. The Nicene Creed was composed in 325 under the sponsorship of Constantine. It was Constantine who decided that December 25 was to be the date on which Christians were to celebrate the birth of Christ and it was Constantine who ordered the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. Christmas - a festival completely unknown to the early church - was invented by the Roman emperor. And from Constantine onwards, the radical Christ worshipped by the early church would be pushed to the margins of Christian history to be replaced with the infinitely more accommodating religion of the baby and the cross.
The adult Jesus described his mission as being to "preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed". He insisted that the social outcast be loved and cared for, and that the rich have less chance of getting into heaven than a camel has of getting through the eye of a needle. Jesus set out to destroy the imprisoning obligations of debt, speaking instead of forgiveness and the redistribution of wealth. He was accused of blasphemy for attacking the religious authorities as self-serving and hypocritical.
In contrast, the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross gives us Christianity without the politics. The Posh and Becks nativity scene is the perfect tableau into which to place this Nicene baby, for like the much-lauded celebrity, this Christ is there to be gazed upon and adored - but not to be heard or heeded. In a similar vein, modern evangelical choruses offer wave upon wave of praise to the name of Jesus, but offer little political or economic content to trouble his adoring fans.
Yet despite the silence of the baby, it should be perfectly obvious to anyone who has actually read the Christmas stories that the gospel regards the incarnation as challenging the existing order. The pregnant Mary anticipates Christ's birth with some fiery political theology: God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty", she blazes. Born among farm labourers, yet worshipped by kings, Christ announces an astonishing reversal of political authority. The local imperial stooge, King Herod, is so threatened by rumours of his birth that he sends troops to Bethlehem to find the child and kill him. Herod recognised that to claim Jesus is lord and king is to say that Caesar isn't. Christ's birth is not a silent night - it's the beginning of a revolution that threatened to undermine the whole basis of Roman power.
Little wonder, then, that influential US Christian commentator Jim Wallis created a storm earlier in the year when he penned an attack upon "Bush's theology of empire", helpfully illustrated with a picture of Bush made up to look like the emperor Constantine. "Once there was Rome, now there is a new Rome," argued Wallis.
Constantine was converted to Christianity by a vision that came to him on the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge: "He saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, 'By this sign, conquer' ". Soon the cross would morph from being a hated symbol of Roman brutality into the universally recognisable logo of the Holy Roman Empire. Within a century, St Augustine would develop the novel idea of just war, trimming the church's originally pacifist message to the needs of the imperial war machine.
Like Constantine, George Bush has borrowed the language of Christianity to sup port and justify his military ambition. And just like that of Constantine, the Christianity of this new Rome offers another carefully edited version of the Bible. Once again, the religion that speaks of forgiving enemies and turning the other cheek is pressed into military service.
The story of Christmas, properly understood, asserts that God is not best imagined as an all-powerful despot but as a vulnerable and pathetic child. It's a statement about the nature of divine power. But in the hands of conservative theologians, the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross is a way of distracting attention away from the teachings of Christ. It's a form of religion that concentrates on things like belief in the virgin birth while ignoring the fact that the gospels are much more concerned about the treatment of the poor and the forgiveness of enemies.
Bush may have claimed that "Jesus Christ changed my life", but Jesus doesn't seem to have changed his politics. As the carol reminds us: "And man at war with man hears not the love song that they bring, O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing."
· The Rev Dr Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford