Maundy Thursday: Roman - Constantine’s Conversion and Christendom

Maundy comes from 'maundere' – Latin for 'command' -

Jesus commanded us to wash each other's feet....

Constantinian Christianity just commands generally!

Back in the fourth week of Lent, we saw Constantine ruling the 300’sCE – starting as a usurper in Britain, fighting across Europe, building coalitions. The legendary tale of his dream of a cross leading him into battle is tied to the chi and rho, the first two Greek letters in Christ, painted on shields. Ever since, Christian crosses and images are associated with state power and violence and warfare in the name of Christendom.

Christianity as the religion of the state, also known as Christendom, or Constantinian Christianity, changed the stakes in ‘heresy’. It’s said to be nearly over now – but we still enjoy a lot of privilege and power in our context. The French, and now Quebecois, movement of laïceté seeks to prevent the assertion of religious symbols in the public sphere, and tax relief or support for religious activity will always be a disputed boundary.

Through the councils and creeds of the 4th and 5th century, from Nicaea in 325CE to Chalcedon in 451CE, this new relationship was negotiated. The creeds approved by these councils, Nicene or Chalcedonian, represent resolutions and clarifications of disputes across an empire already besieged by barbarians, recentering at Constantinople after repeated sacks of Rome. Viewing them as triumphal imperial orthodoxy is anachronistic, medieval.

Through the 7th century, the Islamic movement progressed more quickly to an established Umayyad caliphate centred in Damascus, and from 750CE, an Abassid caliphate centred in Baghdad from the 8th century. That association between civil and religious power was no more a unitary fusion than were the Christian variations. Not all authority is tyranny, and the reality of cultural diversity from Gibraltar to Teheran demanded diplomacy.

In the historiography of both Islam and Christian traditions, the story of the rise of Islam in the 600’sCE is told with great emphasis on the dimension of divine favour and providential predestination. Perhaps scholars in this century will revisit the collaborations in the early days of the ummah before Arabic language and culture became more widespread. What did ‘heretics like us’ make of this dramatic change – and was it all bad?

Did every human being either convert to Islam or suffer persecution or martyrdom? Perhaps that’s an anachronistic retrospective view. Early Islam may not have been as totalitarian as we’ve been taught in the early part of our 21st century. Probably some stories should be told of accommodation and adjustment, and Islamicized cultures in which indigenous ethnicity informed and expressed the faith in great diversity.

Did the Roman Christians convert the barbarian pagans, or did the engagement with those tribes change the centre of gravity of the western church? From a Coptic point of view, the imperial shift to Constantinople veered away from the apostolic origins of the faith. Some would say that the church split every 500 years: Copts at 500, Orthodox at 1000, Protestants at 1500. Phyllis Tickle and others would say we’re due another.