Dreams of Empire: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Dreams of Empire
As a church historian specializing in the fourth century of the Christian era, I’ve had to deal with two eras that are noticeably different. One is the pre-Constantinian Church and the other is, of course, the imperial Constantinian Church. While my work has mainly been on the development of doctrine during this era, it has, of necessity, had to take account of the different attitudes of leading Christian figures toward imperial authority as it evolved over the course of more than a century.
Some in this era whole-heartedly embraced the idea of a church that was under the protection and patronage of the emperor. Others insisted upon a more neutral approach in which the church was not persecuted by the state, but neither was it given a privileged position. Still others, such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, rejected any claims by society at large (including the emperor) on the faith or practice of Christian believers.
Over the course of 2000 years believers have, in the main, shifted and fluctuated between these three positions.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, of course, has aligned himself and the Russian Orthodox Church with the imperialist ambitions of the Russian Federation and its president, Vladimir Putin. While it is tempting simply to see this as a Russian expression of a Christian nationalism similar to what we have witnessed in our own country, we might be missing the scope of Kirill’s ambitions for the hegemony of the Russian church in the Orthodox world. What we are witnessing, in terms of Christian history, is an attempt to return to the model of an imperial church first seen in the fourth century. It should, however, be noted that this model is not accepted by either the Ecumenical Patriarch or the vast majority of autocephalous Orthodox Churches worldwide and especially the Orthodox churches of Ukraine. Nonetheless, as Patriarch of Moscow, the “Third Rome”, we need have no doubt that Kirill harbors dreams of empire that are as real to him as the vision of a restored caliphate was to ISIS fighters in the Middle East.
The desire for power with attendant political and cultural sway is not, of course, limited to Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church. When Kirill makes the assessment that Western society and culture is corrupt, many Christians in the West might agree. Indeed, there are those in the West who nostalgically long for some form of Christendom, whether defined as the Roman-centric society of the high middle ages, or Reformed Geneva, or the American civil religion of the 1950s. Yet, these also are dreams of empire.
It seems to me that through the centuries we have all too often failed to take seriously the words of Jesus before Pilate that his kingdom is “not of this world”. He went on to specifically state that if his kingdom was of this world, his followers would have taken up arms to prevent his arrest, but they did not, because his kingdom was not an earthly realm. Instead, his rule is exercised in individual lives and collectively in the life of the Christian community. When, however, we seek to extend that rule to society at large whether by law or by force, it becomes, by definition, coercive. All this is to say, that the Christian values embodied in Christ’s kingdom cannot be imposed by force or legislation, nor can they be married to national politics, much less dreams of empire.
Christendom is gone with all that it produced, both good and bad. It will not be reestablished by territorial wars, or by the fusing of partisan politics and faith. If you are looking for the establishment of Christ’s kingdom, it begins with us…