In the beginning, the followers of Jesus were able to live his teaching in its pure form. The took to heart that they should not kill. They were pacifists. They were vegetarians. They took to heart that they should love their neighbor. They shared what they had. They eschewed power and wealth in favor of unencumbered service to those in need. The environment they lived in was not supportive of this way of life. It was not the Garden of Eden. They were the subjects of a brutal, ruthless empire. They were the daughters and sons of nations that were defeated and dominated by the Roman Empire. They were often shunned and persecuted. Their ability to live the way of Jesus under these circumstances was admirable.
Then along came a serpent, Emperor Constantine, who offered them the safety of being the official religion of the Roman Empire. What a god send! This would be the end of their peril. Though this status did not fit with their self-image as outsiders, it was a welcome change and seemed harmless enough. The Serpent Constantine’s goal, however, was to use Christianity to reduce religious strife and make a more stable empire. It was not the descendants of Eve, this time, but those of Adam who the serpent targeted with temptation and who succumbed. This temptation was not unlike the one Jesus reported in the dessert, where power over the nations was theirs for a bargain.
And so, Christianity became co-opted by Empire. Empire used Christianity to help it achieve its goal of stable expansion to the point of global domination. And in doing so, Christianity itself became like empire, claiming dominion over all the earth and its peoples. Morally, it lost its way and has never recovered – the Great Fall of Christianity.
The effort to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery is hampered by this myth of the Fall of Christianity, a myth that finds no fault within Christianity besides human weakness, and thus no need for systemic change. The myth supports the posture that Christianity can disavow the Doctrine of Discovery, admit to its culpability and do little else. There is no need to look at pre-Constantinian Christian theology, narrative or sacred texts, as there is nothing systemic within Christianity that would have led it to commit such atrocities. From this perspective, the myths of the Fall of Christianity and the original Fall of Humanity are sufficient to explain Christianity’s role in the brutal conquest and domination of non-Christians around the world.
But there is never only one narrative. The one we adopt shapes how we think and how we act. There are powerful consequences.
In the beginning, before the risen Christ ascended into heaven, he declared to his followers: “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make everyone a follower of me and of my commands.” For a long time, his followers were thwarted in doing so. Their people had long been under brutal subjugation by the Roman Empire, which had humiliated, tortured, and killed Jesus. After his death, his followers were shunned and persecuted. They were hampered in their ability to convert others to following Jesus, as he had commissioned them to do. Finally, God gave them the means to fulfill the commission Jesus gave more effectively. Emperor Constantine stopped persecuting them and finally declared Christianity to be the official religion of the vast and powerful Roman Empire.
The work of the Great Commission was unleashed. Empire was no longer an enemy to the cause. Now its resources became available to furthering the spread of Christianity. Following Jesus’s declaration of his power, popes declared their authority over the kings and princes. The relationship was symbiotic, mutually beneficial, and powerful beyond what the world had ever seen before.
And so came further chapters in the Great Commission of Jesus as Christianity had the military and economic resources of Empire at its disposal. The Crusades, the Grand Inquisition, the Doctrine of Discovery – all were additional chapters of the Great Commission. Making an ally of Empire, and even claiming authority over it, worked to make Christianity the dominant religion in the world.
Jesus’ declaration that all power in heaven and earth had been given to him was revolutionary for his followers. They were now on the side of power, not under its thumb. It made perfect sense, then, that the political and economic power of empire would become available to his cause and to them as the chosen people of God. Jesus’ followers accepted and passed the torch of power from generation to generation, nation to nation, empire to empire, all over the world.
Jesus said we can judge the nature of a person by the fruits that they bear. Beside the positive fruits of Christianity lie the harmful ones – the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Doctrine of Discovery. These are expressions of some of the DNA of Christianity. We cannot just blame the co-opting power of Empire. We cannot change Christianity’s ability to refrain from doing harm if we do not recognize the systemic elements within it that led to it doing that harm. Myth #1, The Serpent Constantine and the Fall of Christianity, does little to promote self-examination, nor does it empower Christianity to change. It paints Christianity as powerless in the face of temptation. Bad things happened. Christianity was co-opted.
In contrast, Myth #2 is empowering. It gives us something to work with to do better by identifying some of the systemic elements within Christianity that logically led to it doing grave injury all over the world in fealty to Christ. Myth #2 empowers us to make the changes necessary to alter that course. Essential to that, essential to dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, is to address the Great Commission and consider decommissioning as it is written it in favor of an alternative that can bear justice as its fruit. The resources for making this change are also present within the DNA of Christianity.