Totalism: Part Two

In Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann offers this definition of totalism:

By “totalism” I mean a system of signs and symbols that make a claim of validity that is all-encompassing, that will allow no challenge or competition, and that will not countenance an act of imagination outside the control of that system of signs and symbols. Such a totalism characteristically has a monopoly on technology and control of the media, so that it sets limits on what can be imagined. It claims to contain all imaginable possibilities and rules all others out of court. Such a totalism, moreover, exercises an invisible authority, so that it is not recognized or acknowledged by those who adhere to it, and in any such case including our own, we are all to some extent subscribers to that totalism that commandeers our imagination and that is inimical to the “image of God” and its practices of holiness, forgiveness, love, peace, and thanks.

Brueggemann laments the ways in which totalism has found its way into the church. In this article I want to deal with one aspect of that influence, one that Brueggemann does not specifically mention or discuss. 

During the first centuries of the church, the Body of Christ offered a radical alternative to the culture and value system of the Roman Empire. Although the church has never been perfect in its following of Jesus, there are times when it has been more faithful and devoted to its calling. Those early centuries constitute such a time. However, with the Emperor Constantine, we see the beginnings of a tragic shift. Constantine understood the advantages of befriending Christianity. He realized that he could unite the disintegrating Roman Empire through his own leadership and ambitions by association with this growing faith. In the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, he ordered that people were free to worship in any way they desired, thus ending the empire’s persecution of the church. Church officials were eager to embrace the advantages Christianity would enjoy with an emperor who was sympathetic to their faith. In 380 CE, the Edict of Thessalonica made the catholicism of the Nicene Christians the state religion of the Roman Empire (all other forms of Christianity were condemned). 

From that point on, far too often, church and state have been joined at the hip in controlling the Christian world and divvying up its wealth and power. The state protected the church and shared its booty while the church provided the divine legitimation of the state. Kings and emperors were anointed as divinely chosen instruments of God to rule over nations, peoples, and empires. To question the king was to question God. Treason, in essence, became a form of heresy and blasphemy. To maintain ecclesiastical support, rulers allowed the church (and especially church leaders) to share in the wealth of the state. This was an arrangement which lasted for many centuries. We see it in the corruption of the medieval and Renaissance church with its greedy and immoral popes and church princes; in the compromises on the part of Reformation churches which needed protection by Protestant princes from Roman Catholic persecution (compromises which allowed rulers to oppress the poor); in the concept of the Divine Right of Kings; in the disastrous extravagance and wars of France’s Bourbon kings; and in the rigid and oppressive nature of Tsarist Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. 

During these tragic centuries when the church rarely showed any resemblance to the teachings and example of Jesus and the early church, there were notable exceptions. St. Francis, non-violent Anabaptists, John Wesley, Quakers like John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry, and Margaret Fell, abolitionists in England and the U.S., Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia experiment, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, liberation theologians like Archbishops Oscar Romero and Dom Helder Camara, and civil rights leaders like MLK all allowed the gospel to shine in a dark, violent, and greedy world. But for the most part, these were exceptions to the idolatrous and greedy route chosen by established state churches for many, many years.

Once the Kingdom of God was identified with the church (a most idolatrous and presumptive identification) and once the church and state were in cahoots in ruling and amassing wealth from the peasants, it became impossible to critique church or state.

It’s important to realize that in these state churches, one was born into the church. Everyone was “Christian” from the time of their infant baptism to the day they died—provided they obeyed the church, practiced church rituals, escaped excommunication, and were obedient to civil authorities. Whole societies were considered Christian. Influenced by Augustine’s City of God, the Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim and incarnate became the church itself. And since whole societies were made up of baptized Christians, in a very real sense, these societies were the church. Once the Kingdom of God was identified with the church (a most idolatrous and presumptive identification) and once the church and state were in cahoots in ruling and amassing wealth from the peasants, it became impossible to critique church or state. And it became virtually impossible to embrace and live the radical alternative Jesus came to create. The Kingdom of God, rather than representing the radical inbreaking of God’s presence and will in this world, became a comfortable arrangement whereby church served state and state rewarded church. (I am aware that Augustine’s City of God did not intend the eventual problems stemming from an identification of the Kingdom of God with the church. His arguments were much more sophisticated than that and were a defense against the claim that the Roman Empire had fallen because of Christianity. However, Western Christianity and civilization have both suffered from such an identification aided by Augustine’s defense of the church and those political institutions he saw as aligned with the church’s mission to defeat the forces of evil in this world.) 

American Christianity has not escaped this idolatrous pattern in spite of all our claims about a separation of church and state. Our version of this idolatry differs from other forms in history but is just as virulent and dangerous. Those with ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds to think are well aware of the dangerous slogan so often parroted in our culture: “God and country.” What many Christians don’t understand is that it’s so easy to move from “God and country” to “Country and God” to, for all practical purposed, “God = country” when considering the goals, attitudes, and allegiances of those who profess Jesus as Lord. 

Perhaps the most obvious example of this idolatry is the current support of the overwhelming majority of white Evangelical Christians of a pathological liar, a sexual predator, a petty demagogue who seeks power, status, and wealth in an attempt to overthrow our democracy, a sociopath who lacks empathy, and a pompous “wannabe” who doesn’t demonstrate a single characteristic of Jesus of Nazareth. In cult-like fashion, these Christians are guilty of worshipping such a man rather than worshipping God and following Jesus. And their religion is aided by the xenophobic, racist, and jingoistic version of Christianity so popular today which has some of its roots in a twisted version of “God and country.” (Remember MAGA and its distorted form of patriotism with its racist underpinnings? The America these people want to recover is racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, religiously fundamentalist, and vigilante.) The most extreme expression of this idolatrous embrace of Trump was seen in a billboard which appeared along I-170 near St. Louis, Missouri. The sign had a picture of Trump and under his image were these words: “And the Word Became Flesh.” 

Unscrupulous politicians and religious leaders who ought to know better are in cahoots as they try to divvy up power, status, and wealth with no regard for the future of our democracy or even the maintenance of human decency. Extreme “red” politicians know they must have the support of white Evangelicals if they are going to win elections [even if these politicians in the hearts (if they still have hearts) may not believe any of the lunatic propaganda they assume is required to stay in office]. So, they pander to the prejudices, hatred, and fears of these fanatics. This is how far we have fallen in our disastrous flirtation with a sick religion and an idolatrous notion of patriotism—all of which is a most insidious form of totalism. (Go back to the beginning of this article and reread Brueggemann’s definition of totalism. All demagogues and all forms of fascism embrace some form totalism.)

… what many call the judgment of God is actually the tragic consequences of injustice and idolatry. We reap what we sow. Over 40% of our population is hell-bent on reaping those consequences.

Long ago, I came to understand that what many call the judgment of God is actually the tragic consequences of injustice and idolatry. We reap what we sow. Over 40% of our population is hell-bent on reaping those consequences. What’s so unfair is that the rest of the country will have to suffer these consequences as well if our democracy is destroyed. Covid-19 isn’t the only dangerous virus in our midst. There is the political-religious virus of lunacy, greed, arrogance, and violence. And just like Covid-19, those who refuse to repent/become “vaccinated against such evil and foolishness” through a change of heart and allegiance will bring suffering and destruction on so many who may be innocent of such idolatry and insanity.

Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence which contains these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In writing about the contradiction between the existence of slavery and his own possession of slaves to the words of the Declaration of Independence, he said, “I tremble for my country when I know that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Today, I tremble for my country. The justice (or consequences) Jefferson feared resulted in the Civil War and have continued to this day. If the totalism found in the current combination of virulent madness (masquerading as patriotism) and idolatrous and distorted religion (claiming to be authentic Christianity) continues, we are all on a path which can only result in the death of democracy and the best hopes of humanity. 

[If you think this is an exaggeration, look back on the rise and fall of fascism, Nazism, and Communism in the 20th century. The parallels between the beginnings of those evil incarnations of totalism and what is currently happening in the U.S. are chilling! (Rick Steves’ DVD entitled “The Story of Fascism in Europe” is a good starting place for such a reminder.) What is even more alarming is the realization that Mussolini, Hitler, and Lenin and Stalin enjoyed the support of only a small portion of the population of their countries—nowhere near the support Trump has in our nation. We are learning how close we came to a coup d’etat in the last days of the former administration and how our military leaders decided not to obey Trump should he try to enlist the aid of the U.S. armed forces to illegally remain in office. We could be that close again or even closer. And I have little doubt that the current Republican Party would gleefully sacrifice our democracy to maintain its power. “Truth, justice, and the American way” no longer have any currency in Trump’s party.)

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