The president’s stated wish that people go flocking back to the churches on Easter Sunday was a shock to me, but it took a a friend’s comment for me to understand why. The president’s concern is for the economy — a worry that he won’t be reelected if the economic damage gets too bad. What shocked me is that he wants to use Easter, the most important of all Christian feasts, to restart the economy and help his reelection chances, regardless of how many people get sick because of his desire to remain in power. It shouldn’t have shocked me. Ever since Constantine, the state has always tried to use the church in this way. As my friend pointed out, this is just another reassertion of Christendom, that unholy alliance between church and state, to the detriment not only of the body of Christ, but of the health of the nation and the world.
The history of the church includes many stories of courageous priests and bishops resisting imperial authority. One such story is that of St. Ambrose, the fourth century Bishop of Milan. In the year 390, a crisis arose after an uprising in Thessalonica. Robert Payne tells the story much better than I can:
[The Emperor] Theodosius, then in Milan, was incensed. He ordered that the people be punished. When Ambrose came to interview him, he wavered. He would not punish, he would punish, he was not sure. Ambrose left him with the feeling that peace and order would be brought about in Thessalonica with no great harm done. He was mistaken. Theodosius gave secret orders that the Thessalonians be punished with a general massacre. He had hardly given the order when he relented again and sent a courier to countermand the original decree, but it was too late. There was to be another great chariot race in the circus at Thessalonica. The gates were closed. The soldiers of Theodosius were stationed at the entrances. At a signal they fell upon the people…in three hours seven thousand Thessalonians were put to the sword.
A cry of horror rose through the Empire, and Ambrose, who regarded himself as the imperial conscience, felt utterly ashamed. He had believed in Theodosius’ word, trusted him, genuinely admired him. How had this come about? He wrote a letter to the Emperor, meant for the Emperor’s eyes alone, a strange, cautious, hesitant, pleading letter, which said in effect and with many periphrases: ‘Thou art a murderer. Now, O Emperor, repent.’
When Theodosius came to Milan to beg forgiveness, Ambrose met him on the porch of the Cathedral and said “How can you uplift in prayer the hands which are still dripping with blood? Depart, I say.”
Theodosius replied, “[King] David sinned yet David was forgiven.”
“Yes,” Ambrose told him, “you have imitated David in your sin; now imitate David in your repentance.”
For thirty days, Theodosius stood among the penitents in the church, wearing a shroud and begging for mercy, before Ambrose absolved him and allowed him to partake in Holy Communion.
Where is our St. Ambrose now? The religious leaders advising the president might be cautious and hesitant, like Ambrose was, yet despite his caution, Ambrose had a backbone of steel that they seem to utterly lack. He was helped by the fact that Theodosius was a pious believer, in a way that our president is not. And at this moment, when we can’t gather, it might feel like we’re the ones being excommunicated, denied the reassurance of Holy Communion. Yet our allegiance to Christ and our love our neighbor is strong enough for us to persist, and to resist the reckless calls of political authority, the age old interference of empire in our faith.