Constantine in Tennessee

April 22nd, 2016

Watching the Tennessee legislature debate whether to override Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of making the Bible the state’s official book reminds me that very few of those who scream and yell about the importance of the Bible seem to have actually read or studied it.

Many legislators proudly admitted that they wanted to adopt the Bible as the state book because it would lead Tennesseans — especially children — to read the Bible, and it might even spark revivals. Passing a bill in hopes it will convert people to Christianity, of course, violates the Constitution.

Strangely, others who spoke in favor of the bill tried to assure their colleagues that the official designation had nothing to do with trying to recruit or proselytize and that it wasn’t about transforming people. It was simply to lift up the Bible for its historical importance.

Indeed, in the language of the bill, making the Bible the state book was likened to naming the honey bee the agricultural insect, the ladybug the state insect and the tulip poplar the state tree. Apparently, in the minds of the bill’s authors, the tulip poplar is much like the Bible because it is found “from one end of the state to the other.”

As a follower of Jesus and as someone who greatly values the Bible as a means of knowing and even experiencing the transformative power and presence of God through its pages and stories, I am very grateful this bill failed. I, for one, do not think the Bible can or should be compared to the tulip poplar.

The bill was likely unconstitutional, but its main threat was this: When we begin to symbolize those things which are meant to be empowered by God’s own presence and are meant to be living and dynamic in the formation of God’s people for the purpose of sharing in God’s mission to the world, it means we have given up on the future of God’s promise and are instead memorializing the work of God as a thing of the past.

This odd obsession that many Christians have with ensuring Christian symbols, phrases or even practices such as prayer be enshrined in public practice — even and especially when that public is pluralistic and may or may not proclaim Christianity as their faith — is causing great damage to the church’s witness to the world.

The truth is that symbolizing Christian beliefs, practices or objects hearkens back to the “Constantine-ization” of the church, which began in earnest in 313 A.D. That was the year the Roman Emperor Constantine began extending official preference to Christianity, a move that effectively transformed Christianity from a counter-cultural movement into a state-favored institution.

We are still struggling with the effects of this sponsorship. Christian author Rodney Clapp makes the comparison of sports stars who sponsor products like shoes or soft drinks and become so linked to them that seeing one brings to mind images of the other (think Michael Jordan and Nike). So, too, has the church become the official sponsor of Western civilization.

To those who desire to continue this unfortunate fusion, the decline of one is equal to the decline of the other. When one is in decline the answer must be to strengthen the fused relationship rather than address those areas of decline. When faced with societal distress, the Constantinian church responds with statements or press releases and looks only to the state for solutions, while the New Testament church responds by listening to and loving those who are most directly impacted by society’s brokenness. The state might be part of the solution, but for the New Testament church, the state is not the answer in itself.

Since the Western church has adopted a Constantinian framework, it has moved from its origins in the New Testament. It’s no longer a marginal movement challenging society’s predominant values through a counter-cultural living practice of love and hospitality towards society’s most vulnerable. It has become a state-approved institution whose task is to preserve the political and economic status quo and to give it legitimacy by adopting the values of the state as its own.

The Tennessee legislators who voted to make the Bible the state book are, I believe, working within a Constantinian framework for the church. Adopting this view divides the actual mission of the church — reflecting and manifesting God’s love, grace, mercy and justice for the world — by ensuring that the interests of the state are equally prioritized. Having a divided purpose means that neither purpose is actually ever fully achieved.

Instead of utilizing the resources of Tennessee to care for the needs of the state’s most vulnerable populations, lawmakers tried to make the Bible the state book. Such symbolization of Christian objects and practices only serves to keep those objects and practices enshrined and untouchable, almost like being preserved in a museum. And what objects are placed in a museum? Those which we never use anymore but pause occasionally to remember the days long ago when they were put to good use.

The Constantinian view still has a fairly firm hold on the church’s ideas, speech, practices, worship and especially its mission. Liberation from it means that we must become singularly focused on the mission Jesus set out for those who wish to follow him: loving the world and working for justice — especially for those most directly impacted by injustice. Sure, those who follow Jesus are needed in places like the Tennessee legislature, but they should not focus on symbolizing Christian objects and practices. Instead, they should serve those most directly impacted by the brokenness of injustice.

It is high time to live out the Scriptures rather than memorialize them.

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