Christendom: A Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome?

stockholm syndrome - patty hearstAs a Christ-follower of Jewish origins (one not born within the culture of Christianity, but who came to the Church from the outside), I have always found the Church’s original attraction to the idea of Christendom (lit. Christen = Christianity + dom = kingdom: Christianity as a nation or Christian nationalism; fig. the use of power to achieve Christian unity by enforcing uniformity), and its pervasive residual nostalgia for it, intriguing. After all, there is no evidence in Jesus’ teaching or actions that he had any desire for such an outcome. And there is every evidence that Paul would have been dead-set against it. If anything, both of them saw the faith they were teaching as transcending not only religious nationalism, but religion itself. Not to mention the fact that both of them taught that God’s power was made manifest in the weakness, servanthood, and rejection of power by God’s people. Paradoxical, for sure, and certainly at odds with human nature and the wisdom of the world.

One way of understanding the original attraction, I think, is a sort of “Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.” No understanding of the origins of Christianity and Judaism, as we know them today, is complete without this fact: that between 100BCE and 100CE the Roman Empire, as an integral part of its oppressive occupation of the Holy Land, executed at least one-third of its inhabitants. Christianity started as one of many movements within Judaism. The Romans tolerated organized, hierarchical religions because they saw them as an instrument of control. On the other hand, they feared movements because they could not be easily controlled. The Roman oppression of the Holy Land was brutal (almost genocidal) but it was also practical, in that it oppressed peoples, by and large, do not fight the oppressor but rather turn against each other, similar to the way children in an abusive parent will always be alert to opportunities to turn the abusive parent’s ire away from him/herself onto one of the other siblings, and similar to the way people held as hostages tend to develop an emotional bond with their captors, identifying with them or even defending them, as in the bank robbery-hostage taking-siege for which the modern Stockholm Syndrome was named.  Perhaps it was sadly inevitable that, at the very least, Christianity and Judaism would both transform themselves from movements into organized and more importantly, unified RELIGIONS that could keep wayward elements under control by the threat of excommunication. Seen in this light, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and gaining access to the levers of power and control is simply Christianity’s last step in its psychological identification with the oppressor. Perhaps they rationalized that if there has be an empire, better it be a Christian one than a brutal, Roman one. Being able to openly take advantage the Roman system of roads, commerce, and communications to rapidly spread the message of Christ must have seemed like an incredible opportunity. And perhaps they thought that they would be the lone human institution that could resist the corrupting temptations of power. Or not…

Our continuing nostalgia for Christendom, given our experience with it, is another story… and for another time…

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2 thoughts on “Christendom: A Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome?

  1. Good summary, I think. Had not thought that what some object to in “organized religion” might be that historical attempt to build a “Dom” and the harm that has done in the past.Question: what is the Stockholm” connection?

    • The Stockholm Syndrome, also known as Captor-Bonding, was first noted after a bank robbery-hostage taking-siege in Stockholm Sweden. Those taken hostage often develop an emotional bond with their captors, identifying with them, defending this, and sometimes joining them.

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