For 1700 years, the Christian church has been building the foundations for today’s global capitalism
Any critique of capitalism is incomplete without analysis of the Christian empire, its history, and its goals. From 300 CE on, empire and religion have intermixed in Europe and eventually the US with disastrous consequences. Many aspects of capitalism used to oppress today were instituted by Christianity, including emotional advertising, creation of markets through military conquest, and control of public services. Because of these features, we can consider the Christian church (in both Catholic and Protestant manifestations) the first multinational corporation.
Christianity as a hierarchical religion didn’t congeal until three hundred years after Jesus’ death. He didn’t become “Christ”, an aspect of “god”, for more than 100 years. In fact, Jesus was born without much fanfare in 3 BCE (they got the calendar wrong!) to Jewish parents in the Middle Eastern Roman province of Judea. The earliest gospels make no mention of Christmas (his birth), and later, conjured accounts put it in a different season, because of the shepherd’s work. It’s commonly believed that Jesus had at least one brother, James, and the passage about his mother’s virginity actually referred in Aramaic to “maiden” — simply, a young woman. So, if you’re itching for a holiday in December, I recommend solstice.
Although officially a tolerated minority, the Jewish people were still oppressed by the Roman conquerors. Jesus grew up in a time of power splinters, with many sects competing for control of the temple and he was probably one of many wandering preachers with a philosophy and a following.
There is little reason to doubt Jesus’ actual life as a preacher. He traveled near his home for three years with a gender-inclusive collective, lived home-free and advocated collective property, not poverty. Although a “son of god”, he claimed that all people were children of god. Some scholars suggest he had a relationship with Mary Magdeleine, or even that he was polyamorous. He accompanied the sick (whether he cured them is your guess) and staged huge community picnic/revivals in the desert. The first symbol of Christianity was bread and fish — a testament to the priority of the apostle collective.
Jesus was dangerous enough to both his community and the local authorities to raise concern. He advocated the formation of a new church, which would create more division within the Jewish community and disregarded temporal authority as irrelevant. Preaching a life of communalism, minimalism, anti-authoritarian justice, and general righteousness didn’t attract bribe taking officials then any more than it does today. However, contrary to some anti-semitic stories, Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire, not the Jewish community. Records of his condemnation are supposedly held by the Catholic Church.
Just like his birth, Jesus’ resurrection is largely myth. The earliest gospels don’t speak of a resurrection, though it’s likely that his body was removed from the tomb for burial preparation. Many humanist christians interpret Easter, the resurrection, as the spiritual rising of Jesus and not his physical reappearance.
Orthodoxy/Europe’s cultural genocide
In the three centuries following Jesus’ death, hundred of “Jesus cults” sprung up around the eastern Mediterranean. While the first followers were all Jewish, by the third generation, non-Jews were permitted to join. Male circumcision remained an issue for some time, and modern scholars have replaced circumcision with baptism in many New Testament passages as the rite of initiation to “solve” the problem.
Some early christians formed organized churches, but Gnostic cults emphasized direct communication with god and denounced mediators like priest. Other cults focused on Mary, Jesus’ mother (this made sense as goddess worship was still common) or a host of other connected figures or “prophets.” Until the superficial conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine, christians of all groups were persecuted and martyred. They were fodder for lions and made examples for those who considered converting.
After Constantine coopted Christianity, he began a process of consolidation to strengthen the flailing empire and permanently suppress non-hierarchical churches. In 381, leaders from 300 churches around the Mediterranean met to discuss an orthodoxy, literally, right opinion, for the new structure. Sects that had not deified Jesus or held him as secondary were excluded from the discussion and did not receive protection from the empire.
The council of Nicaea, like WTO meetings, was about supremacy and not humanity. The bishops fought over whether Jesus/Christ was god or like god. Although the majority believed and the emperor supported the second position, a fiery Egyptian bishop insisted on the former and denounced the few bishops who believed that Jesus/Christ was inferior to god. This victory for trinity (one god in three persons) separated Christianity from the earlier Pagan mythologies of the empire and has aptly been termed “one god, one empire”. Welcome to monoculture.
While the Roman Empire was busy imploding and the Church was establishing its stranglehold with feudal lords over most of Europe, other world cultures were philosophizing, painting, maintaining libraries, and making damn good food. If Islam, and a few Celtic monasteries, had not preserved the authors of pre-Christian Europe, we would know almost nothing about tribal identities before the conquest. As it is, Germanic tribes and peasant life remain opaque.
So, when Western Civ professors talk about the Renaissance, they’re really speaking of the Christian crusaders who sacked Muslim towns and stole the books the church had burned copies of centuries before.
Among the innovations the Knights brought home were banking (they figured out how to charge interest for land without being charged with usury), zero, spices, and architectural designs. Established as an order serving the pope, the Knights’ Templar established trade routes through Europe with tolls like Jersey and forced peasants to construct churches and forts. The infrastructure they laid made large scale trade possible, and the knights are considered predecessors to the Masons. When they became powerful enough to threaten the king of France, he ordered that they be captured and killed. Sixty were charged with blasphemy and homosexuality, and on Friday, October 13, 1307, they were burned. However, their treasure escaped with some who fled. What a bad day for capitalists.
Many groups not supported by the orthodoxy continued to practice during the Middle Ages, despite persecution and fear. Women’s orders, anti-authoritarian lay preachers, and Christian humanists all had a place in the underbelly of European domination. Peasant cultures, distinct from but coexisting with empire, continued to offer alternative stories about creation, the universe and morality. Until the Counter-Reform, peasants were made to adhere only in ritual — mass and some dietary restrictions. They maintained “tribal memory” of existence before the imposition of Christ that the Inquisition tried to erase. John Trudell has written great stuff about this stuff. I suggest it.
The official Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther nailing his ideas to a church door in 1517. The printing press (1455) had made pamphlets and books easier to reproduce, and Europe was brimming with people who realized that their discontent was not isolated. However, the outcome was about as disappointing as a democrat in the White House. The Protestant Churches (Calvin, Luther, and the English) were all established with the help of local governments and had an even more damning orthodoxy. We’ll get there soon.
While Protestant groups persecuted radical sects, the Catholic Church held its inquisitions. These trials, ostensibly held to uproot those who threatened hegemony but often preying on wingnuts and freethinkers, exposed and attacked towns and people who held anti-authoritarian or humanist ideas. Herbalists, charged as witches, were exterminated as the Church endorsed early doctors after the end of indulgences. The Inquisitions instilled fear in the population that was not present before, and the choice between death and devotion created loyalty based on terror.
Colonialism and manifest destiny
While the Inquisition was perpetrating cultural genocide in Europe, both Catholic and Protestant colonists were acting out biological genocide in the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers in Central and South America slaughtered hundreds of thousands (if not more) indigenous people, but had one key difference in philosophy. They believed that native people had souls and could be converted and saved. This, of course, didn’t stop them from wiping out whole civilizations, but eventually aspects of native culture were tolerated, some communal land rights granted, and native movements have potential to reclaim their way of life. However, if FTAA and globalization perpetuate current trends, native cultures face an even larger risk to their survival.
The Protestant colonizers had fewer qualms about complete genocide in the lands that have become the US. Armed with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination (only 144,000 souls will be saved and they are ours, damnit), germs and weapons of mass destruction, settlers killed and displaced every tribe they contacted. Hundreds of broken treaties, several wars and thousands of squatters later, the US government and people had displaced or murdered the vast majority of native Americans. By 1850, the European-American Christians had sufficiently emptied the continent to start telling stories of an empty land waiting for “civilization”. Manifest destiny was fulfilled.
Calvin’s influence on the US didn’t stop with justifications to kill native people. His ideas form the cornerstone of the prison-industrial complex, by stressing the inherent nature of people and disregarding circumstance or the possibility of alternative justice. Coupled with compulsory education to indoctrinate the masses to the glories of capitalism and conquest, Calvin’s ideas formed the base for the self-righteousness of US politics and culture.
Eco destruction and end of the world.
The branch of Christianity which poses the greatest threat to existence today grew out of Southern Protestantism and engulfs the Bible Belt still. The man who sleeps in the White House and his posse mostly subscribe to this brand of fundamentalism, and it has proven a great tool for empire.
Perhaps the scariest aspect of fundamentalist Christianity is that its theologies predict an end to the earthly world which is welcomed and encouraged. Only when God has stricken the earth can the elite fully enjoy the kingdom described in Revelations (that’s something to trip on). Because this devastation is imminent, fundamentalists have little regard for the green movement or for the alleviation of suffering. In fact, one might even help it along by littering while driving a vehicle that gets 6 miles per gallon.
The ongoing destruction of native cultures worldwide through globalization is part of that vision. Colonialism was perhaps the first great ad campaign and the cross (salvation) its commodity. Making the switch from Christianity to capitalism isn’t difficult for a colonizer — there’s still an army waiting to subdue any dissenters. Especially when the exposure of lies doesn’t perturb the imperialists, understanding their motivations is even more important. As the US government and corporations pour money into drugs, arms and slaves, we need to drop the humanitarian pleas and fight back. They never had delusions about making this life bearable, just the desire to prove that they will be saved in the next one.
The twin perpetrators of monoculture in Europe and the US have been capitalism and Christianity. Until we confront them both, imperialism will expand, controlling food and minds. We must continue living out stories of just, earthly societies and telling creation stories that place us in nature to counter the dominant Christian mythologies that support empire and conquest.