One thousand years ago a great native civilization straddled the Mississippi basin whose capital, Cahokia, near what is now St. Louis, may have had more people than London at the time. It was reputedly North America’s largest ever city until Philadelphia in the late 1700s. And it may have lasted as many centuries as Anglo-America.
The Cahokians were for their time sophisticated in farming, trade, astronomy, and building great pyramid earthen mounds, used residentially and ceremonially, the largest of which, ten stories high, can still be visited. Their civilization had another distinguishing, less admirable mark: it practiced human sacrifice. Mass graves have been unearthed, one composed of young women who may have been strangled to death. Another mass grave includes young men bashed and mutilated.
It can be speculated the Cahokians practiced human sacrifice as part of their religious and civil life, like other great native empires to the south, like the Aztecs and Mayans, whose temples were blood drenched. Human sacrifice was intrinsic to many if not most ancient pagan cultures at some point. The gods demanded appeasement from their disobedient subjects.
Higher-end ancient cultures, like Rome and Greece, believed themselves superior for shunning direct human sacrifice, seeking their bloodlust through other barbarities. But there was still a religious and civil system of sacrifices, often involving slaughtered animals. As Peter Leithart describes in his insightful book Defending Constantine, the emperor credited or faulted for establishing Christendom helped end the sacrificial liturgy central to ancient pagan cultures by, after his Christian conversion, declining to offer the requisite sacrifice to Jupiter after a momentous military victory.
With time, Christianity and the church displaced the sacrificial system with a new understanding of the sufficiency of atonement through Christ’s death on the cross, reenacted through the Eucharist. The pagan temples closed as did the gladiatorial slaughter associated with pagan sacrifice, along with a civil liturgy centered on worship of emperor or state. The shedding of blood, whether animal or human, was no longer needed for divine appeasement.
While recently watching a documentary on Cahokia and its human sacrifices, I reflected on this achievement of Christendom, which fueled countless other civilizational reforms benefitting all humanity. Christendom, now commonly portrayed by some Christian sophisticates as a tragic anti-Gospel compromise, was the topic of recent negative tweets by Brian Zahnd, a Missouri pastor and author popular with self-professed anti-Constantinian Christians.
“Christendom was the attempt to combine Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate into a single person,” reads one Zahnd tweet. He describes Christendom as the “marriage of church and state that became the matrix of Christian culture with all its accomplishments and compromise.” He added: “Christendom was, I believe, inevitable, as was its eventual collapse. What comes next? I’m not sure, but I’m eager to find out…I think.” One agreeing enthusiast tweeted back at Zahnd: “Huge shift is happening, but still a ways to go. I’m excited to about this.”
Why the excitement for post-Christendom? In many minds in sync with Zahnd, Christendom facilitates “empire,” especially the American sort, with its flags, anthems, pledges, civil liturgies, and purported power lust, all of which they associate with traditional USA evangelical culture, against which they rebel. Christendom’s collapse will purify and liberate the church, they think. Christians can stop being Americans and start to become real Christians, since evidently one precludes the other.
This thinking seems theologically and culturally short sighted. The church and its members are never called to exclusive focus on their own internal spiritual purity. Instead they are called sacrificially to serve and love humanity by witnessing and working for a more humane society where God’s wish for justice and human dignity are sought.
Christendom from the start sought to reform society, replacing bloodlust and human exploitation with loftier aspirations affirming human life. The human agents of Christendom often failed miserably in their pursuits, instead adding to the world’s endless catalogue of human follies and crimes. But they tried and sometimes they partly succeeded. Thanks to their exertions societies premised on human ritual sacrifice like Cahokia no longer exist, which is a victory for God’s Kingdom.
How will social justice be sought outside the premises of Christendom? Critics like Zahnd don’t typically explain. They imply a hoped for future of harmonious pluralism, though this lovely vision is inextricably a child of Christendom, and there’s no real human model for it apart from biblical ethical and social expectations. Horribly, the two most zealously specific modern revolutions against Christendom, Bolshevism and National Socialism, fervently returned to vast, unparalleled social machinery centered on mass human sacrifice.
Christendom’s founders and sustainers knew that societies are intrinsically spiritual and require fraternal bonds to cohere and thrive. They assumed that the church, whose followers were still a small minority in Constantine’s time, was obligated to help build a more just culture by sharing its moral riches and providing leadership.
Critics of Christendom expect some unarticulated virtue to emerge from Christendom’s perceived and celebrated retreat. They maybe surprised.