In a recent interview a Capitol Hill LGBTQ Episcopal Church priest, when asked what historical event she would change, responded:
The Battle of the Milivian Bridge. Constantine’s victory gave him total control of the Western Roman Empire paving the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion for the Roman Empire and ultimately for Europe.
Emperor Constantine’s victory, which led to his conversion to and legalization of Christianity in the pagan Roman Empire, is sometimes condemned as the launch of Christendom. Some Protestant narratives have faulted Constantinian Christianity for the church’s corruption for which the Reformation was antidote.
Contemporary liberal Christians demonize Christendom as the herald of all they despise: patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and racism, along with virtually all other social injustices, real or imagined. A Sojourners columnist recently elaborated on Christendom’s purported sins like “endless militarization:”
Things like the death penalty, gun violence, and torture also became sanctioned under Christendom, so much so that supporting capital punishment, gun rights, and state-sponsored torture are a pseudo declaration of conservative “Christianity.”
This liberal Christian writer further detailed Christendom’s crimes:
Immigrants and refugees are rejected, individuals are deported, families are ripped apart, Muslims vilified — and their countries bombed, women assaulted, people of color attacked, and society filled with systemic oppression, all while Christendom works to hoard wealth, political influence, and power. It disguises such evil as being “spirituality” and covers its tracks by misusing scripture and selectively adapting doctrines to accommodate selfish desires. While the love of Christ benefits others, the machinations of Christendom benefits only itself.
It’s a harsh critique of Christendom, based on some truth, but leaving out a lot as well, chiefly that the writer is judging Christendom by moral standards developed by Christendom. That persons all have an intrinsic dignity as image bearers of God is the founding premise of Christendom, starting with the earliest reforms launched by Constantine against the old pagan order in which the value and merit of human life was at best capricious.
That each person should be protected in law as an equal is a social concept fairly unique to Christendom and alien to almost all societies not influenced by it.
Here’s a strength and weakness of Christendom: it’s endlessly self-critical. Christendom, when it functions well, is endlessly aware that each person bears God’s image but also is fallen. All persons and human systems are intrinsically flawed. And no person or institution can be completely trusted. So there is perpetual personal and social self-reflection, self-criticism, self-abnegation and self-correction, with hope for renewal, forgiveness and atonement.
But shorn from its spiritual roots, Christendom, especially when secularized, can become self-obsessively masochistic and self-hating, forgetting its strengths, denying atonement, and narcissistically imagining it is worse than all other cultures, indeed uniquely responsible for unspeakable misdeeds against all others. The Religious Left, although of course itself a child of Christendom, despises its parent, sometimes even denying the parentage.
One of Christendom’s most glorious gifts to humanity is Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The holiday has been universalized as a cultural festival of gift giving, decoration, feasting and good will. Many or perhaps most celebrants of Christmas are not Christian, yet by their participation they enjoy and contribute towards the themes of generosity and hope originating with the Nativity.
Minimizing this holiday’s inclusive appeal, a recent Washington Post column bewailed the supposed imposition of Christmas on society:
I like good cheer. But please do not wish me “Merry Christmas.” It’s wonderful if you celebrate it, but I don’t — and I don’t feel like explaining that to you. It’s lonely to be reminded a thousand times every winter that the dominant American cultural event occurs without me.
This writer finds the widespread celebration of Christmas to be oppressive and disrespecting of her non-Christian beliefs. She does not cite Christendom but likely would agree with the critique. One problem with her complaint is that every society has its festivals, rites and rituals based on beliefs from which there are always some dissenters. How can any commonalities cohere society if any dissenters have veto power?
Christendom at its best offers a unifying moral and spiritual framework based on God-given human dignity, while based on this premise, respects and protects dissenters from coercion. Most societies outside Christendom are far worse failures at safeguarding dissenters and minorities.
Constantine’s victory at Milivian Bridge leading to Christendom, with its complex legacy, lamented by the Capitol Hill Episcopal priest, has across centuries been afflicted with every variant of human depravity. In this regard it resembles every other civilization. But Christendom has offered what most other societies typically have not to the same extent: a drive for human improvement and ability for self-criticism based on God-ordained human dignity.
Christmas, no longer confined to Christendom, is one of its most joyful legacies, based on the story of a God who loved humanity so much that He came to be among us. Its appeal to humanity’s nobler aspirations elevates all persons and societies touched by it, whether they specifically believe in that God or not.