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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