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Constantinian, Colonial Adventism

Colonialism is not simply a form of physical or political domination. As Edward Said and Frantz Fanon point out, its tentacles also extend to culture and the subjectivity of the colonized (1).

The true power of colonialism is not military bureaucracy, but the insidious ideology that sustains it. For example, early European colonists in the Americas often made use of the rhetoric of Christianization and civilization to justify the use of excessive force. European colonialism also produced the fictitious celebratory narrative like the “discovery of America,” which supplanted the history of the indigenous peoples who inhabited Anáhuac and Tawantinsuyu long before they were discovered and subsequently exploited, and renamed (2).

Christian theologians played a significant role in the colonial ventures of the sixteenth century by providing the theological foundation of colonial ideology. According to semiotician Walter Mignolo, it was then that Spanish Christians initiated a project of planetary racialization that ranked human beings on a hierarchical scale with European Christians on the top, using biblical narratives (this kind of theological racialization precedes racism by the color of skin) (3). Not surprisingly, this coincided with the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, while their properties were stolen and reappropriated for other imperial purposes by the Spanish Crown.

The raw materials and natural resources Europeans gained from colonial domination were soon developed into products to be sold for profit as imperial centers moved from Spain and Portugal to England and France in the mid-seventeenth century. At the same time, the rise of slavery and indentured labor also turned human labor into a commodity. Colonized subjects were then stripped of their humanity in order to become footnotes in the history of European economic expansion, soon to be known as capitalist modernization.

The hypermasculine militarism of colonial conquests and the capitalist exploitation of labor were especially harsh on women, especially non-European women. While women in Europe were relegated to the position of second-class citizens, non-European women were reduced to objects of male fantasy. The colonial-capitalist machine left nothing untainted, including the life-sustaining yet fragile nature.

Seemingly, colonialism has ended for most people today. However, though it has certainly evolved, the ideological and cultural machine that sustained it remained. Mignolo calls this colonial ideological machine of racism, sexism, and the commoditization of human life and nature the colonial matrix of power (4).

This matrix of power serves many purposes today. We see it in the prison industrial complex in the United States; we see it in the battle over resources in the name of “war on terror”; we see it in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment of American Christian nationalists; we see it in the neoliberalization of the global market that reproduces the same kind of colonial power structure via the IMF and the World Bank. Colonialism continues.

For Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis, Christianity’s historic involvement with colonialism is not a surprising development. For him, Christianity has become a religion of empire and violence ever since it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Like Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Ellis calls this mix of church and state, “Constantinian Christianity.” He writes:

From this point on, empire is integral to Christianity. Rather than aberrational, expansion becomes a main theme of Christian life. At the heart of evangelical life is empire and conquest. These themes are already present in texts that become the New Testament, as normative Christianity is defined within the Constantinian empire and the empires that follow… (5).

After Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire with the help of many powerful Christian leaders and theologians, he used it to persecute other religions as well as Christians who did not comply with his policy. In a remarkably short period of time, Christianity evolved from a religion of the marginalized to a religion of the powerful. Constantine and his Christian allies’ lust for power perverted the gospel of liberation and turned it into an ideological instrument that sustained the escalating militarism of the Roman Empire.

Surely, Ellis’ incisive critique of Christianity’s historic affinity with empire should give any thoughtful Christian pause given the recent rise of Christian racism and Christians’ uncritical alliance with neoliberal policies against the poor and working people around the world. Constantinian Christianity is more than just the marriage of church and empire. It is also a way of practicing faith that subjugates and marginalizes other human beings. In what ways is the Adventist church reproducing the colonial matrix of power? Is the Adventist church Constantinian or a community for the poor and marginalized? If we do not fight for gender equality, racial desegregation, economic justice, and an end to heterosexism, we may indeed be the former.

Many of my fellow Adventists tell me “as long as we confess our faith in Christ, all will be well when he returns.” Our church’s preoccupation with doctrine and not social justice is a direct reflection of the Constantinian use of political and even military force to create an orthodoxy. Unfortunately, for prophetic theologians like James Cone, Christian churches that are overly concerned with apocalypse and life after death often end up serving the unjust system. He writes:

On the one hand, black theology believes that the emphasis on heaven in black churches was due primarily to white slave masters whose intention was to transfers slaves’ loyalties from earthly reality to heavenly reality. In that way, masters could do what they willed about this world, knowing that their slaves were content with a better life in the next world. The considerable degree to which black slaves affirmed the worldview of masters was due to their inability to change life on earth (6).

A faith that focuses on personal salvation and a future heaven actually denies the soon coming of Christ. It is a Constantinian Advent-ism. A faith that devalues this life for the next ignores the Hebrew prophets who spoke truth to power. It denies the Jesus who liberated the marginalized. This goes beyond individual charity to the poor, which does nothing to change their conditions. Those who merely wait for the return of Christ are denying their own responsibility. They wash their hands, as Pontius Pilate did, ignoring their connection to the matrix of power.

If we, Adventists, are really serious about the gospel, then we must resist the colonial, Constantinian matrix of power and listen to the liberating command of God: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.”

—Yi Shen Ma is a second year M.A. student in Claremont Lincoln University. Prior to his service in the United States Navy as a religious program specialist, he worked as a young adult pastor. Today, he co-directs a monthly worship for socially engaged Adventists.

  1. See Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1979) and Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Trans. Richard Philox (New York, NY: Grove Press, 2004).
  2. Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 129-130.
  3. Walter Mignolo, The Idea of Latin America, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 15-28.
  4. Ibid., 10.
  5. Marc H. Ellis, Unholy Alliance, (Minneopolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 96.
  6. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation Fortieth Anniversary Edition, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 149.

Image: Philip Jackson, Constantine the Great (By This Sign Conquer), 1998.

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