e-mail us


Constantine’s cross is still a pact with the Devil


Nino doesn’t sleep very well. He lives in the bunk below me, and he tosses and turns all night. When he finally does sleep, it is fitful, with his massive hands and feet sprawled over the edge of the bunk. It is as though he is fighting a war in his sleep, and indeed, that is exactly what is happening.

For seven years, Nino fought in the Iran/Iraq war. He showed me the angry gash of shrapnel wounds still sprinkled with a purple dust of metal filings, and the perfect round bullet wounds like vaccination scars on his chest and abdomen. He demonstrated the maneuver of simultaneously pulling down a gas mask and jabbing his thigh with a hypodermic of antitoxin as the chemicals explode in mid-air. The ground is so polluted in those areas that the rain itself continues to be red and poisonous a decade after the war’s end. After a 13-month stay in the hospital, he was discharged with a lifetime prescription of psychotropic drugs.

“I am not same man I used to be,” he says in his broken English. “When I was young, I was fanatic. Many people in Iran are fanatic. Now I think is better to talk than to fight.”

Not surprisingly, Nino and Jesus are of a single mind on this issue. They both understand that the difference between fanatical faith and authentic faith is the willingness to use force rather than gentle persuasion. That is why Jesus rejected the violent kingdoms of the world offered to him by Satan in the wilderness. He refused to further his messianic project by the use of violence, and for almost two centuries, his first followers practiced love and cheek-turning rather than crusades and inquisitions.

Not until the time of Constantine did the church succumb to the temptation and make “a pact with the Devil.” As James Carroll says in his book, Constantine’s Sword, “When the power of empire became joined to the ideology of the church, the empire was immediately re-cast and re-energized, and the church became an entity so different from what preceded it as to be almost unrecognizable.”

Central to this perverse transformation was the image of the cross, which under Constantine became both the static instrument of Christian self-affirmation and the idolatrous symbol of deadly state power that murdered all who would not accept its salvific efficacy.

Beginning with the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, the Constantinian church de-historicized and de-politicized the scriptural basis of Christianity by reducing Jesus’ teachings to Hellenistic/philosophical categories of personal and ontological salvation. Constantine’s need to ground his universal empire in a universal spirituality was the driving force behind the formation of a standardized, universal Christian theology and the development of an absolute church authority to enforce it.

“After Constantine,” says Carroll, “the metaphors that Christians used to describe their faith were re-invented in the categories of Hellenistic metaphysics. … Neo Platonism posited a dualism, as that between sin and grace.” Thus salvation came to mean the healing of an ontological rift between God and man, body and soul in the ethereal realm of eternity, rather than the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in the here and now of human history.

St. Paul’s brilliant theology of sacrificial atonement transformed Christ’s defeat on the cross into victory, his death into life-giving martyrdom, and empowered first-century Christians to bravely endure crucifixion. But it de-historicized Christ’s life and set it within the context of a triumphal church and a newly benevolent empire, which recasts Rome as a benign policeman and the cross as a symbol of automatic salvific power rather than empowerment for martyrdom. This abstract, idealized cross now becomes a symbol of a victorious church and the sacred foundation of a divinely mandated state, emblematic of veneration rather than the dynamic of discipleship, emphasizing idolatry rather than self-sacrifice.

“The transformation of the cross was complete,” says Carroll, “not a sign of real suffering any longer, nor even with Paul of spiritual victory, but a sign of power in the world.” This Constantinian cross is the direct antecedent to the American Evangelical theology that claims that Christ had to die, that he was not a victim of the Roman death penalty, but rather a victim of divine wrath. Christ had to die to heal the ontological rift between an angry God and a sinful humanity, thus saving all sinners and opening the gates of heaven. While this theology may justify sinners who are saved by its passive cross, it also justifies Constantine and Hitler and George W. Bush. And it further justifies “just wars” and unjust wars, crusades and inquisitions, death camps and death penalties. It justifies and sanctifies the making of victims by the divinely sanctioned state. It falls here to the temptation of Satan. It is a pact with the Devil.

And so I join my friend Nino, who in his battle-scarred wisdom says, “I think is better to talk than to fight.” It is also better to be in jail with the victims of state-sanctioned violence, than out of jail with the victimizers.

Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community.

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001