WWCD? (What Would Constantine Do?) – Br. Mark Brown

Mark 9:30-37

According to history the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity sometime in the early 4th century.  But some people say Constantine did not convert to Christianity: the church converted to Constantine.  That is, the church took on the trappings of power and empire and even the power of coercion.  And things have been confused ever since: in the church and in states.

We may never know the full extent of Constantine’s conversion.  But what would a Christian emperor be like today?  If Constantine were emperor today instead of what’s-his-name, how would he lead?  How would he serve according to Christian principles?  Such as: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”   How would he be a servant of all?  How would his mighty empire be a servant of all—not just his own people, but all people?

I’ve been fantasizing what a genuinely born-again Constantine might have done after Sept. 11, 2001, had he been emperor.  What would have been a Christian response? What would a Christian Constantine have done?  Here’s my scenario—a little contrived, but bear with me.

First: Christian Constantine secures the airports and borders—of course; innocent people need to be protected from such madness.  And he gets behind the enormous task of putting things back together again for the city and its people. Etc., etc.

Then: Constantine asks, “Why?  Why did this thing happen?  Why do some people hate us so much they will kill themselves in order to kill us? What were they thinking?”  Constantine is stumped. “We’ll have to ask them,” he thinks. “We’ll have to ask them why they hate us.  How to do that…?  Hm….”

While he’s working this out, the emperor reflects on the teachings of Jesus. (Jesus is his favorite philosopher.)  He ponders the topsy-turvy values of the gospel.  Overcome evil with good. Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are the meek. Turn the other cheek. Blessed are the peacemakers. Do not lord it over others. I am gentle and lowly in heart.  If you remember that someone has something against you, first be reconciled with them, and then bring your gift to the altar.  If you would be first, be last of all, be servant of all.  How to be servant of all, the emperor ponders—not just my people, but servant of all people.

Then it comes to him: “There shall be a commission of inquiry. Five hundred Americans from all walks of life, five hundred Americans representing the rich tapestry of American society will be invited to be a commission of inquiry.  Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains; atheists and agnostics and secular humanists.  Black and white and everything else; rich and poor.  Men and women. Old and young.”

So the emperor gathers these people and sends them out in groups of 50.  Some to Kabul.  Some to Tehran. To Baghdad.  And Ramallah and Gaza and Damascus and Amman and Cairo and Jidda and Tunis.  Cities across the Islamic world from Marrakech to Kuala Lumpur.

These five hundred ambassadors will ask, “Do you hate us?  Why?  We will listen.”  And they will listen.  Even as they grieve the loss of so many lives, they will listen and report back to the emperor.

And our ambassadors, these people from all walks of life will ask more questions: what is life like for you? Tell us about your families, your work, your hopes and dreams. Tell us about God. And there will be listening and speaking; speaking and listening.

And then these people from Marrakech to Kuala Lumpur will ask our people the same kinds of questions about their lives. And many will begin to wonder, “How can we hate each other? Now that we see each other face to face, now that we begin to know one another, how can we hate each other?  How can we be afraid of one another? How can we kill each other?”  And in this listening and speaking and speaking and listening, all people will be served.

Of course, the Christian emperor reflects, this mission of reconciliation might cost millions of dollars. Millions. But not billions; and not trillions.  And, besides, he can get Gates or Buffet or Soros to help out with this.  And churches might even help a little.

Well: a flight of fancy and little contrived. But at least it bears some resemblance to biblical Christianity. What I have imagined may sound naïve.  But how many descents into the abyss of war do we have to make before we begin to realize that Christian ideals may not be so naïve after all?  How many torture chambers can we stomach before we ask, “Would Jesus do this?” How much destruction of human life, how much degradation of our own humanity do we have to endure before we remember that Jesus has already shown us a better way?  How much money wasted before we realize that non-violence is a lot cheaper?

Jesus has shown us a better way: better for individuals; better for empires. The greatest empire does not have to dominate by force.  The greatest empire will be exalted in its humility; the greatest empire will be first by being last; the greatest empire will lead by being servant of all—and not just its own people, but all people (as the gospel says). The greatest empire will overcome evil–with good.

But what can we do if Constantine is not doing what Jesus would do?  We feel impotent against such overwhelming forces. We feel so ineffective in a system where money buys power. What can we do in the midst of this great travesty?  This most tragic of travesties.

They say a butterfly flapping her wings in Japan can cause a hurricane halfway around the world.  I think this may be a Buddhist saying about the mystery of cause and effect, but it is deeply Christian.  Christianity is, after all, the triumph of butterfly wings and other small things.  The triumph of the small made great; the triumph of the lowly raised high.  The last and least being first and greatest.  The exaltation of those who come to serve and not be served.  The triumph of the little bit of leaven that transforms the whole loaf.

Perhaps we just need more faith in the triumph of small things, the little that we can do. Perhaps we just need more faith in the flapping of butterfly wings. After all, the flapping of our little wings could become—well, probably not a hurricane.  But a great rush of wind.  A great rush of wind and spirit and breath of life for all God’s people.  A great rush of wind, and, God willing, the wind of change.

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  1. Susan on July 4, 2013 at 09:50

    Lovely. I always wonder what is meant by the “last and the least.” Is that not relative to where the butterfly flies?

  2. Selina from Maine on July 4, 2013 at 08:46

    I am overwhelmed finding this sermon in my email this morning.Last night I attended a movie night at my church St. Peters in Rockland Maine.It was “Romero” , about Archbishop Romero of El Salvador.Although initially a rather quiet,pious man,chosen to not rock the boat, he stepped out of the confines of the cathedral to become a champion of the peasants.For this he was assacinated as he celebrated mass.Sound familiar?

  3. Barbara Hemmings Gray on December 10, 2012 at 10:03

    to quote Pete Seeger; When will they ever learn;when will WE ever learn??? thank you, Brother

  4. Mary Gallagher on October 8, 2012 at 19:14

    What a wonderful world this would be!!!!! If……

  5. Ruth West on September 28, 2012 at 21:00

    This is food for thought. In feeling I am too old to do much these days,
    I will remember that I can be a butterfly, perhaps causing a little rush of
    wind. The Constantine story should inspire us, as a nation, to change our swords into plowshares. Is it possible to have “peace on earth, good will
    toward men” before the second coming when Christ shall make all things
    right?? Fifty people sent out to all nations to spread kindness, joy and
    peace sounds so ideal, but I believe you and I are charged with
    our manageable piece of the world. Not only as an individual, but as a
    part of the Body, the Church, as a part of our community organizations,
    to pray fervently for each other. My focus in prayer today was to pray
    for the hundreds of unborn babies who were purposely cut from their
    mothers’ wombs this day. There are so many for whom we should pray
    every single day. May God bless you, Brother Mark.

  6. Michael E. Allen on September 28, 2012 at 10:31

    So many many years since the summer of 1966 that I lived and worked at the Monastery. For 2 summers I painted the “cell’s”, wxed the floors, ate in the refectory and attened all but Matins Hours of prayer. For many years I wrote to and received letters from a very dear man that was always there for me…Fr Robert C. Smith. I was from a troubled home & through St Michael’s of Newport & Fr Cranston I visited,lived and wrote to St John’s. Now a retired police detective that has his share of and continued bad luck I find receiving these messages gives me a smile and recaling my days with Fr Smith & Br Thomas (Lewis Whitlock) They inspired me as a teenager..back in the 1960s. Thank you for sending me this information and good reading.

  7. Fr. Tom Guback on September 28, 2012 at 09:10

    Mark — thank you for the butterfly wings and the triumph of the small. Continue to live in God’s love and grace!

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