Lamenting the Mythology of a Christian Empire, by Mark Charles
Transcipt of the presentation by Mark Charles at the Call To Action National Conference in Albuquerque, 11.13.2016. For more information about Mark, see his blog here.
Ya’at’eeh. My name is Mark Charles, in the Navajo culture when you introduce yourself you always give your four clans. We’re a matrilineal people and so our identities come from our mother’s mother. My mother’s mother is American of Dutch heritage, so when I introduce myself I say [speaking indigenous language] — which translated means the wooden shoe people.
My father’s mother, my second clan, is [speaking indigenous language] — the waters that flow together. My third clan, my mother’s father is also [speaking indigenous language]– and my fourth clan, my father’s father, is the bitter water clan, one of the original clans of our Navajo tribe.
I want to reflect on this passage we read from the gospels today (Luke 21:5-19).
I would imagine Jesus was a little worried here. He is near the end of his ministry, he is about ready to be crucified, and he is looking over the city of Jerusalem and looking at the temple and his disciples are still so impressed with this place.
They are looking at the stones, at the walls and the buildings, and they’re saying this is magnificent.
This is awesome.
This is amazing.
And they are going on and on about this.
Now, Jesus has been trying to hammer into their heads for his entire ministry that it’s not about the institution. He is trying to get them to understand he didn’t come here to establish a worldly kingdom.
When he fed 4,000 people earlier in the gospels and the people came to him by force to make him king, he walked away. When john saw that he was not acting like a political messiah — John the Baptist saw that he was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners and helping women and doing things that priestly, godly people should not be doing, he sent his servants to him, his disciples asked Jesus “are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we look for someone else?”
When Jesus told his disciples he would be crucified, Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him. Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus was trying to get the disciples to understand it’s not about these worldly institutions.
I did not come to establish a Christian empire.
My kingdom is of another place, my kingdom is somewhere else. It goes past what we see in this present-day reality.
And so when his disciples began talking this way, Jesus, I would imagine, was a little worried and he began warning them.
I tell you, not one stone is going to be left standing.
People are going to come after you.
They are going to persecute you.
You are going to die.
Expect these things. Don’t be surprised when these things begin to happen.
He was trying to get his disciples to understand. And then just a few days later, a little while later, Jesus himself was taken by the soldiers and he was crucified, publicly for all to see. Humiliated. Shamed. In front of everyone.
It was only after he was resurrected from the dead, it was after he appeared to his disciples, it was after they received the gift of the holy spirit, that they became emboldened with this understanding and they finally seemed to get it, God’s kingdom is not of this earth, it is somewhere else. Most of them went on to live very courageous lives of faith and they went out preaching, teaching, healing, and doing all kinds of wonders. And many of them were martyred themselves. They died persecuted and alone.
In the first through third centuries of the church, you had the church on one side and the empire on the other. When you joined the church through the process of discipleship, repentance, communion, baptism, you knew that you were standing in opposition to this empire. You knew that because you had a membership in the church, there was a good chance you would be persecuted and maybe even killed by the empire.
In the fourth century Constantine became emperor of Rome and he became a Christian and decided to Christianize Rome. Creating something Jesus had been fighting against from the beginning.
Biblically there is no such thing as a Christian empire.
It doesn’t exist.
Jesus did not come to establish a worldly empire, but Constantine created one in the fourth century.
So in the fifth century we had a challenge and a problem because here was this Christian entity doing many of the same things that worldly empires were doing, which was going to war. Now, a plain text reading of the gospels doesn’t allow that. So we needed someone like Saint Augustine to come in and do some theological gymnastics for us.
And come up with a just war theory.
This justified why the Christian empire could go out and engage in the act of war, like the world was doing.
Now, over the centuries, the just war theory morphed into the crusades. The crusades became about expanding the empire as well as about protecting Jerusalem.
And then it was in the 13th century, the late 1300s or 1400s, we see in the writings of the papal bulls the introduction of a new category of other called “infidels” primarily used in reference to Muslims, or the moors, and later applied to indigenous peoples.
What the introduction of the category “infidels” did, was now you could go to war based on your theological grounds. You were fighting the other.
So it was in 1452 that Pope Nicholas v wrote the words, “invaded, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever…reduce their persons to perpetual slavery…Convert them to his and your use and profit.”
This papal bull, along with others written between 1452 and 1493, collectively became known as the doctrine of discovery.
The doctrine of discovery is essentially the church in Europe saying to the nations of Europe “wherever you go, whatever lands you find not ruled by Christian rulers, those people are less than human and the land is yours for the taking.”
This was the doctrine that allowed European nations to go into Africa, colonize the continent and enslave the African people. They weren’t human. This was the same doctrine that let Columbus, who was lost at sea, land in a new world that was already inhabited by millions and claim to have discovered it.
If you think about it, you cannot discover lands that are already inhabited.
If you don’t believe me, leave your cell phones, car keys and laptops in front of you. I and some of us (natives) will come by and discover them for you.
It’s not discovery, it’s stealing. It’s conquering and colonizing.
The fact that to this day our nation refers to what Columbus did as “discovery” reveals the implicit racial bias of our country, which is indigenous peoples are not fully human.
This makes the doctrine of discovery a systemically racist doctrine that is the direct result of the church getting into bed with the empire.
Of the church trying to create something Jesus fought against his entire ministry, which was a Christian empire. The fruit of that prostitution is the doctrine of discovery.
Now, the challenge of this doctrine is that it has become embedded into the foundations of our nation. So our Declaration of Independence, which boldly claims all men are created equal, 30 lines later refers to natives as “merciless Indian savages.”
In the actual declaration.
Making it clear the only reason our founding fathers used the inclusive term “all men” is because they had a very narrow definition of who was and who was not human.
A few years later, our founding fathers later wrote another document. They began that document with the words “We the people…in order to perform a more perfect union…”
This of course is the preamble to the constitution. However, article 1, section 2, of the constitution. The section of the constitution that refers to who is and who is not included, who is covered, who is not covered by this constitution, a) it never mentions women; b) it specifically excludes natives; and c) it counts Africans as 3/5th of a person.
So “we the people” literally means what?
White land-owning men.
We have to wrap our heads around that. The purpose of the constitution is to protect white land-owning men.
So today, women earn 70 cents to the dollar. That should not surprise us.
The constitution is working.
Today our prisons are filled with people of color. That should not shock us.
The constitution is working.
In 2010, the united states supreme court sided with citizens united and ruled that corporations now have the same rights to political free speech as individuals, creating the door for Super-PACs. That should not shock us.
The constitution is doing what it was designed to do. Protecting the interests of white land-owning men.
Now maybe you’re saying, “wait, didn’t we correct that?”
In 1868, about 100 years later, we passed the 14th amendment. This was the amendment that was meant to address article 1, section 2. It extended the right of citizenship to those who were born on this continent under the jurisdiction of the government.
However, this did not give women the right to vote. You didn’t get that until 1920 with women’s suffrage.
It didn’t include natives. We weren’t even citizens yet, and even when we became citizens in 1924, many of our tribes in the southwest here didn’t get the right to vote until 1948.
Jim crow laws were still written after the 14th amendment.
So while it extended some rights of citizenship to a few former male slaves, the 14th amendment still excluded huge portions of our population. And we forget that it was in 1973 the same amendment, the 14th amendment, was used in roe versus wade, which now concluded unborn babies weren’t human and therefore they could be aborted.
What this means is that, at the heart of our constitution is not a value for life. Based on the doctrine of discovery, the value is for exploitation and profit, and the practice is dehumanization. The constitution assumes the white land-owning male has the authority to decide who is and who is not human.
In 1823 we had a supreme court case, Johnson versus M’Intosh, two men of European descent litigating over a single piece of land. One got the land from a native tribe, the other, from the government. They wanted to know who owned it. The case goes all the way to the supreme court. The court had to decide the principle upon which land titles were based.
They determined the principle for land titles was discovery.
And then they used the doctrine of discovery to determine that natives who were here first, but are less than human, only had the right of occupancy to the land, like a fish occupies water or a bird occupies air, and Europeans had the right of discovery to the land and therefore the true title to it.
This case, along with a few others during the Marshall court era, created the legal precedent for land titles.
This precedent and the doctrine of discovery was referenced by the supreme court as recently as 2005.
The United States of America never has been, is not currently, nor will it ever be, Christian.
There is no such thing as a Christian empire.
God is at work through the church, not the empire.
God is at work through his people, through his disciples, through his followers, not through the empire.
Jesus did not come to establish a worldly empire. And yet so many of us think as Americans that we live in a Christian nation.
The united states of America is not currently, never has been, nor will it ever be Christian.
I want to do a critique of the past year anda half of our lives.
Lest you think I’m partisan, I want to start with this.
A year ago, in his final state of the union, President Obama quoted the constitution. He was talking about our need for a new politics and he said “’we, the people.’ we’ve come to acknowledge that means all of us.” I heard him say that and I thought that sounds beautiful, but I don’t think we’ve ever decided that. At least I didn’t get that memo.
That seems to be the debate we had this past election cycle.
Donald trump seemed very clear on who “we the people” included or didn’t include. It did not include women, it did not include Muslims, and it did not include immigrants from the south.
He was quite clear.
The challenge with Donald Trump is he understands well what made America “great”, which was explicit and systemic racism, and he was not afraid to champion that again.
Now, the challenge was Hillary is not his antithesis.
Donald said “make America great again.”
What did Hillary say?
“America is great already. We’ve always been great. America is great because we’re good.”
So, what do they agree on?
They agree that our past, our history, our foundations are great.
At the democratic national convention, Cory Booker, an African American senator from New Jersey, in his speech endorsing Hillary Trump (sic) from the platform of the democratic convention — Hillary Clinton, sorry.
You’ll see why I get them confused in a moment.
He acknowledged in his speech the word “savages” in the declaration. He acknowledged in his speech the 3/5th compromise in the constitution. He acknowledged women were excluded and he acknowledged natives were excluded, but he bookended that section of his speech by saying our founders are geniuses and our foundations are great.
Corey, you can’t say that, unless your definition of great is racist.
The dialogue we had this last election season was not a racist/anti-racist dialogue. The conversation we had was, do we want Donald Trump to champion racism as our explicit value, or do we want Hillary to work to keep racism implicit?
And we voted, the church voted, overwhelmingly for explicit racism.
60% of white Catholics, 54% of all Catholics, 81% of white evangelicals.
Donald trump bragged about a year ago, that he could stand in the middle of fifth avenue and shoot somebody and not lose a single supporter. Five weeks ago, he revealed that he believes his power and prestige gives him the authority and right to assault women.
I don’t think he lost a vote.
I don’t think he lost a vote.
I’m not troubled by what the nation did. Donald trump represents the values of America. He understands the doctrine of discovery and he ran with explicit racism at the heart of his campaign.
I’m troubled by the church. Who overwhelmingly supported him.
How did he get our votes?
First, he said he was pro-life.
I’m an avid pro-life advocate. I gave a speech in college on my pro-life views, and I got chewed up and spit out. What I realized is that I didn’t know how to articulate my value for pro-life without demonizing and putting those who had abortions or who were contemplating them into this category of “other”, and dehumanizing them and talking about them horribly. I also realized the pro-life movement largely was not pro-life, they were pro-issue. And I didn’t want to be identified with them, so I quit speaking publicly about my pro-life views until I could figure out how to articulate it in a way that would communicate a value for all life.
When I understood the 14th amendment, when I understood the influence of the doctrine of discovery on the constitution, you heard my pro-life argument in my discourse about the constitution. I lay that argument out everywhere I go. Secular, religious, conservative, liberal, I lay that argument out everywhere I go.
I get push back on a lot of things I say.
No one has ever pushed back on my pro-life argument.
Donald trump is not pro-life.
You cannot assault women and be pro-life. You cannot call Mexicans rapists and murderers and be pro-life. You cannot say the things he says and be pro-life.
He is not pro-life. And he played the church like a fiddle.
What’s the other reason we voted for him?
We wanted him to protect our religious liberties.
But what did Jesus say?
I didn’t come here to create a Christian empire.
You will be dragged into jail, you will be put in front of courts, you are going to be facing judges.
You are going to be facing rulers, and don’t even worry about what you’ll say because I will give you the wisdom in that moment.
Jesus pleaded to his disciples before he died, he said do not fight for your own religious liberty. When peter pulled out a sword, Jesus rebuked him.
The church has no business voting for someone with the viewpoints that Donald has merely because we think he will protect our religious liberties.
We threw women, we threw immigrants, Muslims, we threw so many people under the bus just so the church could feel a little more safe.
There is no such thing as a Christian empire. The United States of America never has been, is not currently, nor will it ever be Christian.
As a church, we need to do some soul searching.
As the body of Christ, we need to ask ourselves — and we need to read this passage from Luke again and again and again and ask ourselves are we willing to do that?
We need to remember our hope, our kingdom, what we’re working towards, is not of this earth. We are living for something else.
Something so much greater.
Something so much more beautiful.
Something so much more lasting.
And we aren’t going to find it in a Christian empire.
Thank you, my brothers and sisters.