Sunday, November 03, 2002
Two blogs I read, Orthopraxis (a.k.a. 1453.org) and Xavier+ have recently mentioned the victory of Constantine (Saint Constantine for us Easterners) at Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D.. The victory followed a vision (or so the story goes) where Constantine saw a vision of the Cross, together with the words, IN HOC SIGNO VINCES, "In this sign you shall conquer." The legalization of the Church that followed changed everything. In some protestant circles it is customary to think of Constantine's embrace of Christianity as the beginning of the end of the real church and its replacement by an official, imperially endorsed counterfeit. Many writers speak of our age as "Post-Constantinian," and this is almost always regarded as a good thing. There is a truth to that. Secular power's embrace of Christianity often results in a too intimate embrace of secular power by Christians. But there is also another truth, that trying to embody Gospel truths in law and culture is itself a not unworthy goal. Let me give an example. When an ambulance comes up behind traffic with lights flashing and siren wailing, the cars in front give way or pull over. The passenger in the ambulance might be a drunk, fallen in a gutter, it might be a thief, injured while committing a crime. It might be a person of no importance, with no claim on any worldly power, nonetheless, cars pull over to let him pass. The only requirement for this special treatment is that the passenger be a person in pain and in need. If the Chairman of General Motors is ahead of an ambulance, his car pulls over. The same for a Senator. Your family name doesn't exempt you. Your religion or your ethnicity doesn't privilege you. It doesn't matter, rich or poor, famous or unknown, if you are in that ambulance, by law and by custom, all give way to let you pass. We give the sick and suffering a prerogative and privilege reserved in cultures untouched by the Gospel solely for the powerful. This is what "Constantinian" Christianity at its best is about. This is also why I have mixed feelings when I hear the phrase "Post-Constantinian."