Jesus’ politics or Constantine’s? (Or Sir Lancelot’s?)

A friend queried on Facebook yesterday, “Whose politics look more like God’s? Jesus’ or Constantine’s?” This is a friend I know well enough to know that he’s not being actually anti-Constantine or anything like that, but, rather, trying to provoke us to think about Jesus.

Now, this friend tends to use the Revised Common Lectionary, yet when I was preparing for Sunday using the BCP/Sarum/pre-Vatican II Roman/pre-1980s Lutheran lectionary (remind me why we needed a different one to be “common”?), this was the Gospel for Trinity 23, Matthew 22:15-22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)

In other words, the most famous “political” passage in the Gospels.

I have to confess I’m not 100% sure what “Jesus’ politics” look like. Perhaps this is the effect of evangelicalism — I see the ethical teaching as personal and have trouble applying, “Turn the other cheek,” to this-worldly politics. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how Jesus-y Constantine’s politics were after his conversion c. 312.

For example, Constantine used alleged “persecution” of Christians by his imperial colleague Licinius as a cause for war in 324. And then he used imperial power to make bishops abide by the Council of Nicaea (a council with which he himself didn’t necessarily agree). He gave tax breaks to Christian clergy. In 335, he decided to go to war against the Persian Empire to protect the Christians there from persecution. He closed pagan temples (maybe). He also probably had his son and wife assassinated.

All in all, Constantine was a Roman Emperor. He did things that one would expect of a Roman emperor — self-aggrandizement, assassination, and war among them. But are his Rome-focussed politics the politics of God?

It’s not as though the history of the church from Constantine to the wild free-for-all after the Reformation just accepted that a good, Christian king acts like an Old Testament king such as David or Josiah, or models himself after Constantine, or what-have-you. There is, actually, a tension in Christendom between the Gospel call to die for your friends and the temporal call to protect your borders.

Thinking on this, my mind naturally and immediately went to the teaching given to Lancelot by his foster-mother, the fairy known as the Lady of the Lake:

… understand this, that knighthood was not created and set up light-heartedly, nor because some men were originally more noble or of higher lineage than the others, for all people are descended from one father and one mother. But when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome justice, at that time all men were still equal in lineage and nobility. And when the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong, they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the peaceful and to maintain their rights, and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing and outrageous behaviour.

To provide this protection, they established those who were most worthy in the opinion of the common people. These were the big and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body. However, knighthood was not given to them frivolously, or for nothing, but with it a great burden was placed on their shoulders. And do you know what that was? Originally, when the order of knighthood began, a man who wished to be a knight, and who was accorded that privilege by right of election, was told he should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compassionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to further wrong. A knight should not, for fear of death, do anything which can be seen as shameful: rather, he should be more afraid of shame than of suffering death.

The knight was established wholly to protect the Holy Church, for she should not avenge herself by arms, or give back evil for evil; and for that reason the knight was established to protect the Church, who turns the left cheek, when she is struck on the right.

Lancelot of the Lake, trans. Corin Corley. Oxford, 1989/2000, pp. 52-53.

The Lady of the Lake goes on to describe the knight’s arms and armour, giving each its symbolic, spiritual meaning, just as writers such as John Cassian do for the monastic habit. Interestingly, in a later stage of the same cycle of romances, the liturgical vestments of priests are referred to as “the armour of Holy Church” (or something like that).

What this shows us as we ponder the question of worldly politics and the kingdom of heaven is that Christians who can hold worldly power are profoundly aware of the ways in which imperial policy or knightly behaviour, or life at Court, or any number of circumstances are at odds with turning the other cheek.

St Martin of Tours chose to leave the Roman army in the 360s. Many other disciples of Jesus chose to remain soldiers.

Circling back to making these sorts of questions point us to Jesus, then. Real world politics is a messy business, and living in a representative democracy means I have rights and responsibilities other than just paying taxes and following the law. I can elect people, vote in referenda, and write letters to the powers that be.

When I exercise these rights and responsibilities, am I turning to the wisdom of Jesus, reflected even in the Lady of the Lake, seeking to serve the poor and outcast, or am I turning the wisdom of this world? That, I suppose, is the Jesus-y question for today, even if any actual vote cast may vary from Christian to Christian.

Lancelot fighting the two dragons guarding the entrance to Morgan’s Val Without Return in an illumination of a 15th-century French Lancelot-Grail manuscript. BnF, Manuscrits, français 118 [série français 117-120] fol. ?

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