I recently returned from a trip to London and Oxford. This was my first proper trip to England and I went with a deep curiosity of what might feel familiar to my Canadian/Australian experiences and what would seem different. I would compare my sentiments to those of trying to understand my parents. While they are obviously distinct people, they also carry within them so many of the seeds that have grown into who I am today, both through nature and nurture. (I also just had a visit with my dad who helped with the kids while I was away, which confirms this theory.) Having lived in two of the British ‘colonies’, themselves distinct from each other, its clear that there are commonalities in language, cuisine, customs and values—both religious and political. The roads from Britain to Canada or Australia were traced by ships rather than foot, and motivated by trade and an expansion of influence. Perhaps my inclination to trace my story mimics a broader tendency to trace history from the standpoint of our collective present place geographically, which in western terms means that all roads lead to western power and influence—culturally, politically and economically. Oxford professor and Byzantine era specialist Peter Frankopan offers an alternate story in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. His title gives away the presumption that his intended audience has a Eurocentric understanding of history. It seems a bit presumptuous to suggest that a version of history that identifies a non-Roman, Persian, centre is ‘new’.
Perhaps an even deeper examination invites us to consider why we deeply desire a singular centre.
From a Christian perspective, we might choose Bethlehem as our centre. The surprising choice for God to enter incarnate into the world. Or perhaps we might make Jerusalem the centre. The place where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose again. We have grafted the back story of Jesus as the Story of the Israelites and a limited glimpse of the early church is included in our cannon, but then what? The spread of Christianity and the movement of missionaries is generally depicted as a side note of the primary goal of trade in popular narratives. But when I visited Jerusalem last year I was struck by how few Christians there were. In truth it felt like Christianity had been released from geographical dependence. Frankopan goes so far as to suggest the reason for this “is ironic, therefore, that while Constantine is famous for being the Emperor who laid the basis for the Christianisation of Europe, it is never noted that there was a price to pay for his embrace of a new faith: it spectacularly compromised Christianity’s future in the east.” While trade routes may have forged paths through with Christianity was dispersed, its pairing with military power disconnected it from it’s centre. This is both a gift and a caution.
The gift of a decentralised faith is that as adherents, we are truly urged to become the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’. No longer is there reason for territorial battles. Expansion of faith requires only that the ideas be presented in a way that others receive. Given the increase in connectivity, the potential is vast. The caution though is what we learn from Constantine. That how we treat our ‘enemies’ has a lasting impact on our witness. Hunter argues that “the very plausibility and persuasiveness of the Christian faith depend on a cultural context in which meaning, purpose, beauty and belonging are possible.” We must enact Jesus’ imperative to love our enemies if our hope is to truly have a faith that is inviting in a global context. Further, “Christians cannot demand for themselves what they would deny others. A right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all.” Religious freedom rather than state imperialism must be upheld by Christians in order to protect the space for sharing faith. And in this free space, we might be able to share our own, personal story. A humble footnote rather than fighting for a dominant narrative. In England, Pastor David Shosanya shared authentically about his own intersectionality and his understanding of himself as a black Christian, offering that he came to Christ through his blackness and so that would always precede his identity as a Christian. I appreciated deeply his story. His is completely different then my own. His story beginning from one place, my story beginning somewhere completely different with a tiny thread running back to Britain so many generations ago. (As well as threads from so many other places.) But both our stories gesture to Christ as the true centre. Christ who both holds a place in history and geography and yet who has been fully released as well. Interestingly, I found Frankopan reminded me of a need to continue the work of repentance for Christian imperialism and re-imagining a more faithful way to share faith along the information highways around us. Shosanya invited us to “remember where you came from even though God has given you all the privileges to forget.” While I surrender my footnote to be woven together with so many others to become part of the central narrative of Christ, I’m reminded that how we tell the stories of the past shape the future. These stories too are travelling along the new information routes that impact how Jesus is received. May this knowledge keep us narrating humbly.