Empires prefer a baby and the cross to the adult Jesus


Richard Moore

Date: Mon, 27 Dec 2004 16:37:14 -0400
To: (Recipient list suppressed)
From: Aaron Koleszar <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Empires prefer a baby and the cross to the adult Jesus

Empires prefer a baby and the cross to the adult Jesus From
Constantine to Bush, power has needed to stifle a
revolutionary message

By Giles Fraser
The Guardian December 24, 2004

Guardian - Every Sunday in church, Christians recite the
Nicene Creed. "Who for us and for our salvation came down from
heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin
Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius
Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again
according to the Scriptures." It's the official summary of the
Christian faith but, astonishingly, it jumps straight from
birth to death, apparently indifferent to what happened in

Nicene Christianity is the religion of Christmas and Easter,
the celebration of a Jesus who is either too young or too much
in agony to shock us with his revolutionary rhetoric. The
adult Christ who calls his followers to renounce wealth, power
and violence is passed over in favour of the gurgling baby and
the screaming victim. As such, Nicene Christianity is easily
conscripted into a religion of convenience, with believers
worshipping a gagged and glorified saviour who has nothing to
say about how we use our money or whether or not we go to war.

Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire
with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 312, after
which the church began to backpedal on the more radical
demands of the adult Christ. The Nicene Creed was composed in
325 under the sponsorship of Constantine. It was Constantine
who decided that December 25 was to be the date on which
Christians were to celebrate the birth of Christ and it was
Constantine who ordered the building of the Church of the
Nativity at Bethlehem. Christmas - a festival completely
unknown to the early church - was invented by the Roman
emperor. And from Constantine onwards, the radical Christ
worshipped by the early church would be pushed to the margins
of Christian history to be replaced with the infinitely more
accommodating religion of the baby and the cross.

The adult Jesus described his mission as being to "preach good
news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and to
set at liberty those who are oppressed". He insisted that the
social outcast be loved and cared for, and that the rich have
less chance of getting into heaven than a camel has of getting
through the eye of a needle. Jesus set out to destroy the
imprisoning obligations of debt, speaking instead of
forgiveness and the redistribution of wealth. He was accused
of blasphemy for attacking the religious authorities as
self-serving and hypocritical.

In contrast, the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross
gives us Christianity without the politics. The Posh and Becks
nativity scene is the perfect tableau into which to place this
Nicene baby, for like the much-lauded celebrity, this Christ
is there to be gazed upon and adored - but not to be heard or
heeded. In a similar vein, modern evangelical choruses offer
wave upon wave of praise to the name of Jesus, but offer
little political or economic content to trouble his adoring

Yet despite the silence of the baby, it should be perfectly
obvious to anyone who has actually read the Christmas stories
that the gospel regards the incarnation as challenging the
existing order. The pregnant Mary anticipates Christ's birth
with some fiery political theology: God "has brought down the
powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has
filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away
empty", she blazes. Born among farm labourers, yet worshipped
by kings, Christ announces an astonishing reversal of
political authority. The local imperial stooge, King Herod, is
so threatened by rumours of his birth that he sends troops to
Bethlehem to find the child and kill him. Herod recognised
that to claim Jesus is lord and king is to say that Caesar
isn't. Christ's birth is not a silent night - it's the
beginning of a revolution that threatened to undermine the
whole basis of Roman power.

Little wonder, then, that influential US Christian commentator
Jim Wallis created a storm earlier in the year when he penned
an attack upon "Bush's theology of empire", helpfully
illustrated with a picture of Bush made up to look like the
emperor Constantine. "Once there was Rome, now there is a new
Rome," argued Wallis.

Constantine was converted to Christianity by a vision that
came to him on the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge: "He
saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun,
a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached
to it which said, 'By this sign, conquer' ". Soon the cross
would morph from being a hated symbol of Roman brutality into
the universally recognisable logo of the Holy Roman Empire.
Within a century, St Augustine would develop the novel idea of
just war, trimming the church's originally pacifist message to
the needs of the imperial war machine.

Like Constantine, George Bush has borrowed the language of
Christianity to sup port and justify his military ambition.
And just like that of Constantine, the Christianity of this
new Rome offers another carefully edited version of the Bible.
Once again, the religion that speaks of forgiving enemies and
turning the other cheek is pressed into military service.

The story of Christmas, properly understood, asserts that God
is not best imagined as an all-powerful despot but as a
vulnerable and pathetic child. It's a statement about the
nature of divine power. But in the hands of conservative
theologians, the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross is
a way of distracting attention away from the teachings of
Christ. It's a form of religion that concentrates on things
like belief in the virgin birth while ignoring the fact that
the gospels are much more concerned about the treatment of the
poor and the forgiveness of enemies.

Bush may have claimed that "Jesus Christ changed my life", but
Jesus doesn't seem to have changed his politics. As the carol
reminds us: "And man at war with man hears not the love song
that they bring, O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear
the angels sing."

· The Rev Dr Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney and lecturer in
philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford

•••@••.••• Guardian Unlimited (c)
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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Richard Moore (rkm)
Wexford, Ireland

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