Early Christians were not persecuted for being religious, they were persecuted for questioning war, injustice and superstition. Rome didn’t care what people believed, but was very concerned with maintaining power. The early church was a threat to empire because it taught the dignity of every person. the cross was originally a symbol of the power of the Roman Empire. Christians took that symbol and turned it into the opposite- a symbol of human courage against all that would frighten and diminish us. Taking up the cross the early Christians believed their very suffering would show the brutality of empire and the dignity of our one humanity.
Emperor Constantine recognized an opportunity co-op the revolutionary Christian movement and turn it into an sectarian institution that would serve his empire instead of challenging it. The crucifixion lost its revolutionary underpinnings, and became about Jesus alone. Salvation was not about creating heaven on earth, it was about escaping the mythical fires of a mythical hell. The message became privatized and politically inert. Now rather than seeing Jews and nonbelievers as one human family, they were seen as rivals.
Now Christians could love God and mistreat God’s children. Since that time, churches pray for themselves and their own nation. Justice has been replaced by charity and our excesses are seen as blessings. Now if we have two coats, instead of sharing one, we pray for a third. We, in the current church in America, are not persecuted because it wouldn’t be worth the wood or the nails. Far from being persecuted by the mighty, we are much more likely to consecrate their violence than oppose it.
If we want to rekindle the fire of early Christianity, we must do so not by increasing our own religiosity, but by finding the radical universal love that actually makes a difference in the world. Then only will we will understand the true meaning of the cross, which represents one united humankind rising in courage over and against the violence of every oppression and empire.
But, beware. If you think God is protecting your nation, your sect, or your success, you are standing on the wrong side of the cross. No one should follow Jesus who is not prepared to be called a traitor by his or her nation and a heretic by her or his church. For the human on the cross does not represent Jesus alone, but everyone who is weak, everyone who is poor, everyone who might be called “the wretched of the earth.”