I made an off-hand reply last week on FaceBook to a question that has become so common as to almost be meaningless. How can so many people who claim to be christian follow an exemplar who is the exact antithesis of everything Jesus stood for? The usual response—well, they aren’t really christians—will not serve. Because it overlooks too much of what is going on and what has preceded it. My response was that they are Imperial Christians, adhering to what the religion became after 313 C.E. Prior to that date, it was pretty much just one of dozens of religions, having no better claim to relevance than any other. After that, it became the state religion of Rome, thanks to Emperor Constantine’s mandate.
That changed everything. What Jesus said (may have said, the other inconvenient fact being that we really do not know, even if he existed*) played less and less a part of what then unfolded, because it became then an arm of the government, and governments are never pacific. At best, governments are pragmatic. In this case—and it can be argued—Constantine was a pragmatist with an eye toward posterity. The constant tumult that had emerged with the advent of a faith that had the temerity to declare that it was the One True religion and had an obligation to convert (Judaism had a similar claim, but it was never an evangelical doctrine and kept pretty much out of politics, except in the question of a homeland, so they actually caused little trouble for Rome) had created a degree of civil unrest that made governing difficult. Time to settle things. Constantine’s mother may have had something to do with it. In either instance, Constantine decided it would be best for there to be a single state religion and decree that the others should get in line.
The details comprise several bookshelves of historical research. We can try to analyze the whys and wherefores, what was he thinking, and so forth, but the fact is christianity ceased being what it had been and became an imperial tool, which meant conversion with the backing of the Law. Not Yahweh’s law, but Roman law. That aspect—that character—of what has come down to us has pretty much corrupted the whole thing. When people refer to the New Testamant and the red letter sections to try to point out the hypocrisy of certain people, they unfortunately overlook the real world aspect of christianity, which is that is a colonial movement, an occupier, a set of principles designed to privilege a single worldview even to the destruction of all others. It is a Roman artifact. So when a Leader steps forth who holds up the sceptor of that movement and declares that it will triumph, whatever Jesus might have said is utterly irrelevant to those who follow. They adhere to a conquering religion. (That’s one reason right wing christians almost never refer to the Beatitudes. What a lot of weak-chinned, namby pamby pacifist nonsense! You have to force people to believe and all that tolerance and empathy will gain you nothing!)
All religions that become aspects of government end up evolving into something other than their presumed intents (or almost all, since some religions are designed from the start to be governments). What we’re seeing in the screeling irrationality of so-called fundamentalists (so-called because if they truly were “fundamentalists” they would adhere to what Jesus presumably said—indeed, they would first know what he said, instead of regurgiting updated takes on Old Testamant Angry God theology—but instead they are soldiers in the march to be religious imperialists always with an eye on the “reward”) is a revelation of what christianity has become for them. They are christians, but they are Constantine’s not Yeshua’s.
Personal aggrandisement, either of wealth or reputation, and a need to silence detractors are the hallmarks of this brand. Naturally they will follow a leader who promises both. We should stop trying to shame them into reason and get some explanation from them as to why they aren’t christians. They are. But they belong to an 1800-year-long tradition of an imperial theology that doesn’t really take Jesus very seriously.
*No, we actually do not. Not concretely. This is the fly in the ointment in all this. We have no “original” documents, only copies of copies, and none of them agree with each other. It’s a morass of supposition. But. My own personal view is that Yeshua bar Joseph did exist. Someone said some things that have come down to us as his words and whoever that someone was, he was a serious philosopher. There are some radical things in those attributions, and if taken seriously would have posed a threat to the status quo at the time. Whether we call that man Jesus or Sam, it doesn’t matter. Ideas came down to us that still have resonance. The pity is that such a large number of people won’t really look at those words in any but metaphorical and ritual terms.