Martin Luther King Jr….Constantinian Christian?


“There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer forwhat they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.”

“Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of
things as they are.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

(Excerpt from King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail)

As a negro Christian I find some similarities between King and the prophetic black Church and Jim Wallis’ work with Sojourners/Call to Renewal. One being their understanding of the Gospel which compelled them to witness to the State as well as to the Church.

Recently there have been some interesting statements from James Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, on Wallis’ long-time efforts to bring evangelicals to the table to deal with issues relating to social justice and Christians becoming prophetic, transcending the tired-old liberal/conservative chasm. Jim Wallis’ newest book God’s Politics has stirred up some great discussion and debate in regards the Church’s relationship to the Nation-State.

Smith is one of the voices of Radical Orthodoxy, an interesting school of Christian thought and praxis that has deeply resonated with me on many levels. Some of the scholars and theologians I have read are Smith, William Cavanaugh, John Milbank, D. Stephen Long, and Daniel Bell. Their critique of liberal social orders resonates with me as I try and struggle to be faithful to the Gospel in this North American
context.

But statements like this (from Smith) make me wonder:

“Instead of Wallis’ leftish civil theology, I’ll continue to believe that our most important political action remains the act of discipleship through worship.”

(Before you read on, please read Smith’s comments in full to get some context of what he saying.)

Here is my question:

Were Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those in the prophetic black Church during the Civil Rights movement Constantinian Christians because they used the mechanism of the “nation-state” to bring about a more just society? Were they “statist” Christians?

If so, then I wonder, I really really wonder: What would James Smith and those in the Radical Orthodoxy camp have told black Christians in Montgomery, Alabama, during Jim Crow? What would Smith and others say to young black Christians who wanted to see change in the society? “Go to church and worship Jesus”? “Wait for white Christians in power to become virtuous Christians on the issue of race and class”?

What’s up?

The reason I ask this is because there is much I agree with in Radical Orthodoxy — their critique of liberal individualism, the pathologies of capitalism, and so forth. I suspect it’s for these same reasons that I see Radical Orthodoxy books on alot of emerging church bloggers’ reading lists.

But I am still torn about this question: What would America be like now … What would many churches be like right now without the prophetic witness of Christians like King towards both the State and the Church, had they simply remained in their respective church buildings worshipping King Jesus? I think that is a question that
Radical Orthodoxy needs to answer.

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10 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr….Constantinian Christian?

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  1. you are certainly not rambling alone. i’ve read a fair bit of RO-stuff (and written a journal review of one of their books). there is a lot of good thinking, they are pressing some good question and I’m interested to see where they go from here. however, I have my reservations. maybe that’s something for me to blog about in the future.

    as to why they are popular on emerging blogs; well I have wondered that myself. i guess they will resonate because they ask a lot of the questions emerging thinkers want to discuss and becasue RO wants to collapes the secular/sacred divide, which is something emerging bloggers are often interested in.

    however, I am not convinced RO is really compatible with the missional emphasis of many emerging thinkers. that’s not to say that RO won’t continue to be popular, or even becoem the default paradigm for some, just that I don’t see RO, as it is currently conceived connecting with the ‘outside the walls of the church’ emphasis of the emerging movement.

  2. fernando,

    I agree with you about some of the points you raise about why many emerging types like RO. For instance the way William Cavanaugh narrates modernity and the creation of “religion” as something that is the result of fledgling states vying for power in Europe is fascinating. Also the way our liberal democracy is a totalizing system that relegates the Christian tradition to a “belief-system” rather than a concrete social body that represents the politics of Jesus. Any many other such insights I find fit right in with many aspects of the emerging church.

    But I would agree with you about ROs fit with the missional aspect of the emerging church. Our “sentness” into the world to speak to the powers and principalities. It will be interesting to see, as you said, what happens in the future.

    Thanks for hitting me up.

    Ant

  3. wow. you bring up some great thoughts.

    i commented on your question about Jackson on Steve Bush’s site, but i wouldn’t put Jackson and King in the same category for this reason: King’s work was theologically motivated more specifically. he didn’t see the state as the good end of the church, but the church as being for the preservation of the world, to crib from Bonhoeffer. you don’t see, i don’t think, in King, the impulse to subjugate the church ends to the state ends, as would be in true Constant.

  4. Myles,

    Thanks for hitting me back and also commenting on the blog.

    From your comments I assume you define “Constantinianism” as “Christians” using some form of violence or force to get to a perceived “good” or “end”. And maybe also Constantinianism is using the mechanism of the state as a means to achieve a political end. Am I correct?

    I agree somewhat with your definition of “statist” Christianity. I am a Christian that affirms the way of non-violence as a way to embody the gospel of the kingdom of God. My understanding of “statist” or “constantinian” Christianity has primarily been taught to me by John Howard Yoder and Cornel West. Somewhere in that continuum would I attempt to get at the actual definition of statism or constantinianism.

    For me, whether or not a particular Christian project is constantinianism hedges on its relationship and perspective on the Eschaton or full manifestation of God’s kingdom of earth. The issue remains primarily for me an eschatological issue. Does your project see itself as building the kingdom of God on earth? Does your project see its organizations, embodiedments, or even political entities as the only faithful embodiedment of the Eschaton? Does your project conflate the kingdom of God with your political agenda? Is your project assumed to be the only “totalizing” system that fully embodies the kingdom of God? Questions like these are my point of departure about what does or what does not constitute “statism” or constantinianism.

    With that in mind it is quite possible that Jackson fits that bill. To be honest I don’t know. I have never seen Jackson equate the “church” or the “state” with the Eschatological kingdom of God. Maybe he as “embodied” or practice such a confession without describing it as such. I don’t know.

    Honestly, I have a love-hate relationship for Jesse Jackson. Thanks to his contribution to the Civil Rights movement (the size of which is always up for debate) my people can live a little better than they did 40 years ago. For that I will be forever grateful. Death threats, facing dogs, water hoses, white supremacists, to see your mentor’s face blown off, and so forth. I have mad respect for Jackson’s participation in one of the greatest liberative movements in American history. But don’t get it twisted. I think Jackson’s dark side almost, but hasn’t too mind, nullified his good work. But I am not sure I would call him a Constantinianism Christian. I haven’t really looked at him that close enough to see if that is true.

    Ant

  5. Anthony,

    Very thoughtful post, and I’m right there with you. I was bothered by Smith’s assesment of Wallis. I saw your comments on Jonathan’s (Phaith of Saint Phransus) blog, and you also commented on my blog after Steve Bush commented on a post I made about not believing “any old church will do”. I thought I’d check up on you, and lo and behold, here’s your post about Smith’s post. I had quite a bit to say about Smith’s critique (starting here) after I read it (upon finding it on Jonathan’s blog)

    Dale

  6. Anthony,

    I also agree with you that there is MUCH in RO to appreciate, and I hope to read a bit of Daniel Bell , Milbank, and others in the future. I’ve been following emergent a bit more of late too (as I notice you have as well). And Steve B. has been posting about Progressive Evangelicalism, which is also an interesting discussion.

    Dale

  7. Hi –

    I surfed over here from Next-Wave… really good stuff! I’m wrestling a lot with the questions you ask: I would hate to think what the world would be like today had King remained in the worship service only.

    I’m not sure I have found a satisfactory answer to these questions for myself; I am dissatisfied both with passivity and with “mountain out of a molehill” speeches, marches, protests, etc.

    I have commented on some of these issues in an article I wrote on 1 July 2005 at http://www.msquaredt.com/blog/2005/07/01/worship-as-higher-politics/.

    In the end, I do say that the most radical thing we can do is declare that Jesus is Lord: but this, I think gives us more just cause to participate in national life than it does to remain cloistered in our Sunday-morning mysteries.

    As a person of so-called “mixed ancestry” who has benefitted from King’s legacy, I think we have to balance our “come out from among them and be ye separate” and “submit to the governing authorities” with the declaration that “Jesus is Lord” wherever he isn’t considered to be.

    Just how to do that… well… as you said, it’s hard!

  8. Anthony,

    You might be interested to note a post I just put up on ways to think about these issues as guided by my pastor who has read most of the books in the Radical Orthodoxy series and is very much in agreement with its take on theology as a discourse (he definitely has some reservations, to be sure, i.e. its esoteric authors and a few other things).

    I’ve put it up here. Thanks for asking the question and for being willing to engage those like myself.

    I must apologize for my ignorance about King, and I hope I didn’t misrepresent anyone.

    Fernando, you wrote this above:

    however, I am not convinced RO is really compatible with the missional emphasis of many emerging thinkers.

    You might be interested to note that the same Jamie Smith that Anthony referenced above in his critique on Wallis has written a book on Radical Orthodoxy and its relationship to Emergent called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. It’s slated to come out spring 2006.

    peace,

    eric

  9. I like some of Jamie Smith’s philosophical work, nevertheless: we cannot and ought not choose between “discipleship through worship” and “civil theology” or public engagement. Discipleship inevitably has a public, world-related dimension, and since liberal democracy is what we have, the church must engage that language game. No doubt, we shouldn’t swallow whole or uncritically the legacies of theological liberalism, but neither should we discard the best of those legacies. MLK is a perfect example my friend.

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