Thursday, December 27, 2012

Look to the persecuted

During a rather heated conversation on Facebook over the last few days, an idea developed in my mind. It is nothing new but it still sort of struck me. Here is the crux of it: when we look at the history of the church we should look to the persecuted, not the persecutor.

That seems kind of self-evident on the surface but in practice it is anything but. Look back at standard church history text and they revolve around the famous personalities: Luther, Calvin, Augustine, popes, theologians. As the old saying goes, the winners write the history books and our church culture is a reflection of that. Most of what we know as "the church" is aligned with a faction that at some point in history was persecuting others and moreover we often look at those times when they were doing the persecution as some sort of "Golden Age"

This is not a perfect rule by any means but throughout history it is the persecuted we should be studying rather than the persecutors. The idea that the church, which from infancy was outcast and persecuted by the religious powers of the day, suddenly turned 180 degrees and became the religious power of the day and persecuted those who dared stray is patently and demonstrably contrary to everything we read in the New Testament. The church became a reverse Paul in that Paul was the persecutor of followers of the Way but was born again and became persecuted and in a complete reversal the church was persecuted for three hundred years until Constantine when the church decided to use the sword to persecute others? How does that make any sense?! That brings me to the sword, a more dominate symbol in traditional church history than the cross.

One of the most important lessons from church history regarding the sword is that not only is the use of the sword condemned by Christ it is also invariably linked with corruption. Paul taught that when he was his weakest he found his true strength,. Taking up the sword means that you are no longer weak, at least in the worldly sense. So when the church takes up the sword it is abandoning our source of strength and relying instead on our own perception of strength. I would say with little hesitation that invariably where the church embraced the sword, the Gospel witness suffered and the church became in varying degrees corrupted. It happened in 313 when Constantine allegedly saw a vision and decided to wage war under the sign of the cross, a perversion of the very meaning of the cross. It happened throughout the Western world for the next 1200 years when Rome used the sword to crush dissent and gather power and wealth. It happened in the years after the Reformation when Catholics and Protestants in turn killed one another and jointly used the sword to persecute and murder the Anabaptists. Throughout the intervening years in Europe wars were waged with the blessing of clergy on one side and the other, asking for God to bless their cause and smite their enemies, enemies who were often fellow Christians. Roman Catholics and Protestants killed one another for centuries, even as recently as my lifetime in Northern Ireland. America has perfected this strength through the sword mentality with a blending of vaguely Christian theology and American patriotism, sending clerics to war to bless and minister to those we dispatch to kill in our name. We seem more comfortable in finding common ground with unbelievers who share our culture and our flag than we do with the believer who seems foreign and strange to us, and church history only encourages this attitude.

We desperately need to completely revamp our view of church history for three main reasons. As it stands today, "church history"...

- Is focused on the wrong things
- Serves mainly to reinforce the status quo
- Teaches us very little that will be of practical use to us in the post-Christendom world.

As we study the church throughout the ages, there is so much more to learn from those who have been persecuted for the faith, especially when they have been persecuted by others claiming to be "the church". Everything in the New Testament tells us this. The church is found among the persecuted, the poor, the outcast, the weak, the unwanted, the unlovely. It is a grave error to seek the church in places of wealth and power and comfort. The church is stained with blood rather than gilded with gold.

What we require, what the times demand, is a radical rethinking of leadership both present and past. I am less and less interested in learning at the  feet of "great men" of the past and more interested is seeing the example of those history has largely ignored, forgotten or perhaps even vilified. Looking at the faith traditions that have the best books but often persecuted the followers of the Way is a great way to perpetuate the problem and leave us woefully unprepared for the future.

We can and should look to the past to speak to the future. Let's just make sure that we are looking in the right places.

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