The Triumph of Christianity?

The politics of conservative evangelicalism today seem fueled by equal parts nostalgia and paranoia. Nostalgia for the Bible Belt and paranoia of cultural and political winds. These winds of anxiety are enflaming a new (but old) form of theo-politics. The problem is many are calling for triumphs and forgetting the cross.


This summer our family visited Rome. We saw the ruins of the Forum, and walked the Via Sacra; tracing that ancient route which Roman Generals and eventually Caesars used for their “triumphs”. These triumphs began as victory parades for conquering generals. They would trace the Via Sacra, the most religious street in Rome. It was lined with temples, an overwhelming introduction to the fusion of Roman power: politics and pantheon.

These triumphs made their way up the Via Sacra with enemy captives leading the way, followed by the loot, and the victorious Roman legions. Their general would be near the back, in a chariot, with a slave whose job it was to whisper in their ear: “remember you are just a man”

After Caesar, the practice of “triumph” became tied to the Emperor, but it was still deeply Roman. Triumphs always fused theology and politics, celebrating the victory of Roman Empire as the blessing of the gods. These final triumphs of Caesar, the ones Paul could have witnessed himself, were ceremonies of divinization. They completed the journey of each Caesar from man to a son of god. They were funeral processions.

The Scripture Uses Triumph To Understand Christ and Confront Rome

The practice was so well known that Paul uses it more than once to make theological and pastoral analogies, the same with John in Revelation:

  • Paul sees the cross as the event in which Christ “triumphs” over the world’s principalities and powers by making a “public spectacle of them” as his captives (Colossians 2.14-15)
  • But Paul also sees Christ leading the church as “captives” in his “triumphal procession” which spreads the aroma of Christ in the world (2 Corinthians 2.14-15)
  • Christ as the “root of David” has “triumphed” (Revelation 5.5)
  • The Church “triumphs” over the power of Satan by the blood of Christ (Rev. 12)
  • Christ will share his “triumph” over those who make war against his kingdom with the church (Rev. 17.14)

The Scripture uses the cultural concept of Roman triumph to describe the total victory of Jesus Christ on a Roman Cross. Nothing could be more impossible, and more offensive to good Romans than this comparison. To Rome, crucifixion was the exact opposite of triumph. Not so in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The practice of triumphs, and their use in Scripture, have me thinking about our current moment in America. With talk of “taking America back for God”, we desperately need to reassert the difference between the triumph of Christ and the triumph of Empire.

Another American Christendom?

In the States, there are fresh arguments being constructed for a new American Christendom. For all the emphasis on the “white” and “Christian” of white Christian Nationalism, we need to talk about the nation-state, too. The nation-state is the new emperor.

Christendom blurs the political lines between State and Church in the same way the practice of early triumphs fused Empire and the gods. As “White Christian Nationalism” continues to operate as an organizing principle for the GOP, we are once again hearing fresh calls to “win” America back for God, to “triumph” over the Left. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called citizens to put on the armor of God, and replaced “schemes of the devil” with “schemes of the Left” in an intentional misquote of Ephesians 6.

It’s true that, if you live in the West, you “breath the air” of Christendom, as Glen Scrivener puts it in his latest book. We can be honest about past configurations while refusing to settle for these as our only option in considering Christian witness and engagement.

Today, especially in the States, anxiety over American society is pushing American Christians into a practice of “Christendom politics” which aims for winning at the cost of witness. In other words: it sees the triumph of Christianity tied to the survival of the state, not the suffering of the Cross.

My question I’ve been carrying with me from Rome is simply: how does Christianity triumph?

Part of the problem today in certain conservative configurations of American Christianity is a problem of language and concept. We can talk about the triumph of Christianity and mean different things.

If you visit the Via Sacra today, the ancient path of these triumphs, you’ll see the facades of churches covering what originally were pagan temples. Is this the “triumph” of Christianity?

Does Christianity “triumph” in America when it overtakes and occupies every socio-political institution through brute, democracy denying, political force? (If you think this is an extreme interpretation, consider how “election integrity” and political conspiracy theories interplays with theological language in the political rhetoric of the Christian Right)

What good is a project to repair the cultural facade of Christianity over America? This is ironically out of step with evangelical Christianity. Coercion is not transformation. And such a project can dispense with the demands of the Cross as is politically expedient.

Historians often speak of Christianity’s “triumph” in the Roman Empire just as politicians, pundits, and pulpits speak of a similar “necessary” triumph of Christianity in America. Looking back, historians see the socio-political development of Christianity from a marginalized to mandated faith. This historical narrative highlights Constantine, the emergence of the Papal States amid the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Charlemagne, the list goes on. Today, the rhetoric coming from conservative circles aspires to a mandate inspired by this history.

The Scandal of Christ’s Triumph on A Roman Cross

Let us be clear: the triumph of Rome, of Christendom, is not the triumph of Christianity. After Christianity became mandated, Roman emperors would try to control the Church to bring about the unity of their Empire. This syncretism, this imperial configuration, is still alive and well.

Understood like this, strictly historically and sociologically, Christianity becomes one option among many for societies looking to survive. Society needs morality. And America has often borrowed from Protestantism, labeling and legitimizing its social morality as “Christian”. This insight belongs to Jacques Ellul, French sociologist and theologian. And it matters for us today.

The triumph of Christianity and the triumph of Rome (or any nation) are radically opposed by their own nature. Temporary political agreements by the Church with the State tend to mask what God intends to manifest: the person and presence of Christ in his church. But let me be clear, this is not a call to avoid the implications of faith.

Stanley Hauerwas offers the right critique, “withdrawing from politics to keep yourself pure is a hopeless act of despair”. Resisting the politics of Christendom does not make withdrawal the only option. But if you accept these politics, the Cross certainly looks like a defeat. No we must practice a different, disruptive politic amidst authoritarian threats to democracy.

In a world where the categories of progressive and conservative present as the only options, the church must be disruptive. This is not middle-wayism, or sanctified partisan moderates. This is a profound orientation to the Cross as triumph, as power and potential.

Scriptures attest to the Cross as the triumphing power of God over sin, death, and decay; the Cross alone is the conforming shape to all the potential of God’s power. The Cross is not the point from which Christianity proceeds to dominate, it is the shape which conforms means and modes as Christians engage in and for the world. Because of this, we should recognize the work of Christians is first to attend to the various ways our own configurations of faith & practice are prone to distortion, decay, and disorientation from the shape of the Cross.

The proof we need to do this again is a renewed zealotry for Christian triumphs that have more in common with Roman Triumphs disconnected with the Roman Cross.

Christianity did not triumph because it converted the Roman Forum from pagan temples into a row of medieval churches. Christianity triumphed finally and forever at the Roman Cross.

When we talk about the triumph of Christianity, we must insist that Christians can only “win” in the sense that a brutal death on a Roman Cross can also be interpreted by faith as a “win”. This is the starting point, and also the end point, for how we speak of triumph as Christians.

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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