From Constantine to China: Reflections on Suffering in the life of the Church
This past week, I had the privilege of hearing Mark Charles speak twice in the Bay Area- both at the Project Peace Speaker Series forum, as well as at FirstPres Sunday morning service.
As somebody who has heard Mark speak numerous times, I am always struck by his efforts to build collective memory by telling the truth of our nation’s history and deconstructing the mythology of America. As he argues, many of our country’s founding documents are sexist, white supremacist documents. And the reality of America is not that it is a Christian nation, or that is the bastion for equality, exceptionalism, and liberty and justice for all. Instead, it is a nation that was founded on the dehumanization of people of color, the ethnic cleansing of Native peoples, and the protection of privileges for white, land-owning men. He tells story after story from history to prove this, and even dissects many of our nation’s founding documents to point out the ways that they are fundamentally racist.
On Sunday, I heard a new aspect to Mark’s storytelling, as he traced not only the unjust history of our country, but also detailed the birth of Christendom- the blending of Christianity and Empire- under the influence of Eusebius. In his key writings, Eusebius (an early Church Father and “historian”) began to write Jesus out of the Christian story, instead elevating the role of Emperor Constantine and equating the kingdom of God with the empire of Rome. Mark argued that this was in fact, a response to the stark persecution of Christians.
Due to the weariness experienced by unrelenting suffering and persecution, Eusebius chose to align with empire rather than be persecuted by it. And this choice, which brought about a new reality of state-sanctioned church in the era of Constantine, had ripple effects that touch us today.
The barometer for faithfulness, according to Jesus, has always been suffering. Faithful followers of Jesus were marked by suffering, rejection, and even physical persecution. This is the path that Jesus laid out for us. This is the way of the cross.
Yet instead of following in the way of Jesus, the Church (starting in the Constantinian Church era) has chosen out of suffering. To do so, we have aligned ourselves with Empire. We have created and/or been complicit in unjust systems, while pursuing security, control, and stability. We have failed to be allegiant to Jesus- the Suffering Messiah- and have chosen to hold on to power. We have falsely linked the “greatness” of our nations, with the blessing of God.
So how do we remain faithful to the way of Jesus- even when it causes us to suffer?
In the midst of this question, I was reminded of a recent conversation with a friend who lives and works as a missionary in China. He was visiting California for a few weeks and briefly told me about the increase of religious persecution in China over the last year, when the government rolled out new regulations on religious affairs as part of a broader effort to secularize China and preserve the Chinese Communist Party.
While much of this persecution has overlooked by mass media, the levels of increased persecution are undeniable.
As a Christian living in China, my friend has witnessed or heard about the following in the past year:
- Many prominent house churches being shut down and disbanded
- Leaders of major house churches being arrested and imprisoned, and being surveilled 24/7 by the government. One of the most prominent leaders of the well-known Early Rain Covenant Church was recently arrested, along with 100 other church members. Knowing what might come, he wrote a bold statement of faith to inspire the Church in the face of government persecution, saying:
“If believers in Jesus do no wrong then they should not be afraid of dark powers. Even though I am often weak, I firmly believe this is the promise of the gospel. It is what I’ve devoted all of my energy to. It is the good news that I am spreading throughout Chinese society. I also understand that this happens to be the very reason why the Communist regime is filled with fear at a church that is no longer afraid of it.”
- Foreigners (mainly missionaries) getting taken in for questioning and eventually getting kicked out of the country. Moreover, these foreigners have had their electronics scanned for other names of Christians, leading to entire missions organizations being disbanded and taken out.
- College students on campuses being taken in by officials, and having their diplomas taken away for not renouncing their faith. Students are generally being deterred from making commitments to Christ through fear tactics.
- Christians being fired from their jobs for not renouncing their faith. There are clear economic and employment consequences for Christians who don’t conform to broader culture and/or renounce their faith
My friend noted that every province is different, and that some provinces are being targeted more harshly than others. He also emphasized that it’s not just Christians who are suffering; Uighur Muslims are also being persecuted at tremendous rates.
Despite all that is happening, my friend noted that Christians are remaining very bold. They aren’t holding back, are continuing to invite people to church activities and into relationship with Jesus, and their faith has not been deterred.
When I asked him what we can pray for, he responded with these words:
“I used to think we should pray to alleviate persecution. But I’m starting to think that’s actually the wrong way to go about it…. If we really believe that God is greater than everything, and that the government’s power is not true power, we shouldn’t pray for an end to persecution but for hope in the face of it. We should pray for a right view of God in the midst of suffering… In that environment, you see people’s faith in amazing ways- in ways that are hard to see in America sometimes.”
I am struck by these words, and the ways that the faith of the house church movement in China stands in stark contrast to the power-seeking, politically-driven actions of many “Christian” leaders in the U.S. Too often, I have seen (white) American Christians compromise values to hold on to power and privilege. Too often, I have seen Christian leaders water down their theology and convictions, for the sake of political expediency. Too often, I have seen the quest to maintain “religious liberty” actually be a cover for Christians trying to maintain dominance and hegemony.
Can the American Church return to a place where suffering is the true barometer of faithfulness, and not being “great”? Can we repent of the ways that we’ve been entangled with Empire and lay down our need to rule over others and control our own fate? Are we willing to lose social position, entitlement, and privilege, in order to follow in the way of the Cross, which leads to suffering and persecution?
I am challenged by the words of Mark Charles and our Native siblings to the American Church. I am challenged by Jesus followers in China and their acknowledgement that God’s power is greater than any earthly power. May we continue to detangle ourselves from the forces of Empire, and follow in the way of Jesus, knowing that resurrection can never come without crucifixion.
Here is a closing prayer for us to reflect on:
Against Constantinian Christianity
(by Kenji Kuramitsu, from A Booklet of Uncommon Prayer)
Lamb of God, Jesus Christ
you are the true Ruler and Savior of the World
and we owe our loyalty to you- not a president,
a police commissioner, a general, or a human king.
Teach us to unmask human conquerors
for their false claims to lordship,
wreck our allegiances to human dynasties of wealth
and power, and do not let us be swayed by
false promises of great power.
We are your people.
Let whoever would call you their Lord
lay down their assault weapons,
that Christ’s peace may mark all flesh in this land.