I am reading a book I am interested in using for a class in the Fall: Mission After Christendom: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission, edited by Ogbu Kalu, Peter Vethanayagamony, and Edmund Kee-Fook Chia (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). It is common to take shots today at the notion of Christendom brought about by Constantine’s “conversion” in 312. “Christendom” tends to denote a politico-social alliance between church and state, and Christianity and nation, producing what we often refer to as a civil religion that provides religious legitimation for national identity (and hence of policies and practices). “Christendom” then shapes our ecclesiology, so the argument goes, assuming the mission and methods of the Church and the state can co-exist quite happily and without conflict. “Christendom” assumes that for the Church to be effective, it needs to be in power. It also collapses Christian identity into a national one. We no longer are forced to choose between the two. I’m in agreement with many of the overall critiques of this non-Scriptural and untheological notion called “Christendom.”
But here is what gives me pause: I was raised in “Christendom.” I grew up going to church and being immersed in the teachings of the Church. I did hear the Gospel and I realized, thankfully, that this Gospel of Christ makes a claim on me. I can’t say that the reason for going to Church was motivated by parental concern for the salvation of my soul. But this is just what white, middle-class Americans did, so this is what we did. And because this is what we did, it’s fair to assume, is one of the main reasons why I claim a Christian identity today.
I do think the concept of “Christendom” has created an identity crisis for Christians in the United States that has undermined and subverted our primary identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Ogbu Kalu writes in his chapter, “Globalization and Mission in the Twenty-First Century:” “As cultures are pressed together, the problem of identity looms large. Religion is manipulated as a marker of identity and ultimacy, invested with the symbol of prideful heritage, deployed as a tool for boundary maintenance, and promoted as the mooring for scapegoating the Other” (pp. 26-27). Christian civil religion is used in this way: it creates an identity crisis in the Church as it attempts to construct an identity for us based on “prideful heritage.” Civil Christian religion is used as a weapon against “those” different from us. And many of “those” against whom we use our civil religion in the form of flags, gold crosses, material wealth, economic expansion, and military coercion, are those whose primary identities may actually be as followers of Jesus Christ.