Remember the scene in The Green Mile when the guards were bringing in “Wild Bill” the first day? Big John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelt the same”) senses the approaching danger and whispers from his cell, “Careful . . . careful . . .” Sure enough, Bill lulls the guards by acting highly sedated, attacks, and mayhem ensues.
Whenever I hear a political movement courting or promoting a religious angle, or some faction of the church embracing or promoting a political party I whisper the words, “careful . . . careful . . .” The warning is for the church and for Christians who may be seduced into too heavy a mix of political and spiritual matters.
Today is the anniversary of a significant date in Christian history: Constantine’s victory over Maxentius on the Milvian Bridge in 312. Prior to the battle Constantine, praying rather generally to any god who would listen, asked for help. In response, about noon he saw in the sky cross of bright light with the words “By This Conquer.” Unsure of what to make of the vision, he dreamed that night of Christ appearing to him and explaining that he was to carry that banner before him into battle. He did. He won. He became the first emperor, and as Dan Graves’s puts it article on Christianity.com “meddled in the affairs of the Bishops for the rest of his life.”
Constantine, the Christian Emperor! A hallmark of the advance of the Christian faith, and a harbinger of great things for the church!! Not so fast. The Baptist in me says “careful.” Many have argued that the ensuing alliance of church and state weakened both so incredibly deeply that the Dark Ages resulted. The Baptist in me is inclined to blame this same alliance throughout Europe for the present-day decline of the Christian faith. And finally, the Baptist in me is wary of this potentially toxic mix in America. Too close an alliance dilutes the effectiveness of both institutions, but particularly throttles the spiritual dynamic of the church.
Of course, the church has had a great and good impact on political developments in countless ways; abolition of slavery, resistance to Hitler, civil rights to name a few. The successes, however, often lead to a naïve rush to a dangerous union for any and all causes. My main concern, of course, is the church, and we simply must remember that Christianity thrived when persecuted, perhaps especially when persecuted, for that brought us closer to the cross than wielding political power ever will.
Please don’t read into these few paragraphs a skewering or promotion of one party or another. Press me too hard and I am liable to respond I really couldn’t care less. My destiny and my purpose are determined by God, not by any political consideration. Still, I am a politically interested and engaged Christian. But whenever I see one party or another currying the favor of Christians, or Christians getting star struck by one party or another I remember John Coffey, “careful . . . careful.”
Dr. Terry Ellis
October 29, 2010