Whoever writes for the Church is involved in a good project. Any voice that enters the conversation around the Church should be heard, considered, and judged. This is why I read Tony Jones. I want to hear what he has to say, consider it, then judge whether it is beneficial to the Church or not.
I read Jones’ post, In Praise of Empires, with dismay and finally alarm. I have questions. If a real historian wrote this post, I would simply have closed the tab and moved on. But when a Church theologian writes it, I see yellow flags.
Jones doesn’t like to be criticized. Who does? But if we’re writing for the Church, we should invite it because we aren’t promoting our own reputation but the Church’s health. It’s unfair to call one’s critics cultured despisers, trolls or to compare them to hot-takers like Matt Walsh. What if it’s not my sensibilities that has been offended, but the Church’s wellbeing that has been threatened?
Why is Jones saying what he’s saying? As one commenter replied, “I fail to see where you can ethically take this line of reasoning.” What is the ethical ramifications of what Jones is saying to the Church? It’s not only what he is saying, but why is he saying it? Jones is a theologian obviously interested in Christianity and the Church, seminaries, distinguished theological publishers, and the emergent movement. So I have to suspect that when he praises the Empire, this somehow relates to his ideas about the Church. In fact, they do. Throughout his post he draws a connection between the Church and the Empire that is disturbing.
I would like to highlight a few of the disturbing ethical implications Jones seems to suggest:
- Is he suggesting that the end justifies the means? Jones says, “Crucifixions? Yes. But also aqueducts.” Even though the Roman Empire wreaked havoc on countless cultures and lives, they advanced civilization. Even though it brutally subdued and subjugated civilizations and peoples, it brought them the finer amenities of life for which they should be grateful. If we care about the Church, can we speculate that Jones is willing to let people suffer for the sake of a movement, an ideology or a vision that contributes to the success of the Church? If the emergent movement can bring the Church benefits, is the subduing and subjugation of its people tolerable to ensure its success?
- Is Jones suggesting that abuse can have positive results? He says, “… they would acquire slaves — slaves that could attain freedom…”. Jones believes that slavery is good if the slaves are harvested from a culture that is deemed inferior and underdeveloped. For an advanced culture to capture inferior people and make them slaves is something they should desire because they can now enjoy the finer things of life that the Empire provides. Also, the Empire will grant slaves their freedom when the stringent prerequisites are met, not to return to their home and homeland, but to serve the Empire in other ways. Is freedom under another’s rule better than freedom under my own? As someone who is interested in the Church, is Jones saying that ruling over Christians and controlling them, as long as it’s for a good cause, is legitimate? Is the heavy-handed management of people permitted for the sake of the Church’s noble causes?
- Is Jones suggesting that we must accept abusive leaders as an inevitability? “Yes, they were brutal and often violent, but they were also civil and appreciative of beauty and art and literature.” I realize Jones is trying to get us to acknowledge the nuances of history, that it isn’t all that straight a line and that it isn’t all that black and white on either side of it. But he also seems to propose that we should accept and appreciate authoritarian and abusive leaders as complex human beings who aren’t always monsters. Yes, they are brutal and violent toward us, but they enjoy the same things we do. Is Jones insinuating to the Church that even though its leaders can be cruel and inhumane we should allow them to continue their reign because they are accomplishing the results the Church needs and desires?
- Is Jones suggesting that the Church should take advantage of power? He says, “It was on the back of Roman order and government that Christianity spread”, and “… Christianity spread largely as a result of these imperial advancements.” Jones believes that Christianity took advantage of the Empire’s power to spread itself. I’m not a historian, but shouldn’t the idea should be proposed that Christianity didn’t spread because of the Empire but in spite of it? Indeed, shouldn’t the brutal persecution Christians suffered under its rule validate this proposal? Is Jones intimating to the Church that its leaders should use any power at their disposal to propagate their agenda? Is this what is inspiring Jones’ interest in seminaries and denominations and reputable theological publishers and the Emergent movement and Empires? Does Jones believe that the only way the Church will advance is through the use of power, and that therefore strong leaders should step up?
These ideas concern me because they are anti-Church. They are, indeed, enemies of the Church. They do not serve it, but rather lord over it to convert it into something it’s natively not. Jones’ ideas hint that he believes the Church would be served best by following its leaders, strong and authoritative though they are, because they will take the Church and whoever survives the application of its agendas to where it needs to go.
When I read Jones’ post I feel that I’m being invited to enslave myself to the strong leaders of the Church so that they can accomplish their vision. I really feel like I’m being summoned to sacrifice myself. It’s implicit but it’s there! It reminds me of a scene from M.A.S.H. where Major Frank Burns says this about being a good American:
“Unless we each conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders blindly, there is no possible way we can remain free.”
I spent decades in the Church, three of those as a pastor. I’ve thought and wrote long and hard about visionary thinking in the Church. It is the thinking of the Empire. The Church and the Empire are adversaries and always will be. Read The Revelation! Shaping a vision for a Church, setting its goals and achieving them regardless of the cost to individual people or the quality of the Church’s community life is unfortunately standard procedure for the Church and its leaders. Generally, unlike the earliest Church, the Church today is more enamored with power.
This is one of the main reasons why I opted out of the organized Church and its ministry. People were crucifying, being crucified, and were willing to be crucified for the equivalent of aqueducts, roads, and monuments.
No more! And not again!