I noticed an article this week reporting that the BBC (that’s the British Broadcasting Corporation) had decided to stop using the terms “BC” and “AD” when reporting dates. Instead, they would begin using the designations “BCE” and “CE”. This apparently has led to some upset among Christians in Britain, who criticized the BBC for surrendering the dating designations that are based on Christianity.
In case you’re not fully versed on these things, a brief elucidation: the designation “BC” means “Before Christ” and the designation “AD” stands for the Latin, “Anno Domini” or “Year of the Lord.” The designation “BCE” means “Before the Common Era” and “CE” means “Common Era”. These latter terms were brought into use some years ago by those who felt it was not appropriate to use dating designations that were attached to a specific religious tradition in a religiously diverse world.
The upset among British Christians is perhaps understandable, given that Great Britain is still an “officially” Christian country, the Church of England enjoying the position of being the governmentally established church. Yet, the BBC’s decision undoubtedly reflects the reality on the ground in Britain, where there is a great deal of religious diversity. It also reflects an increasing reality in Western cultures, including that of the United States: the loss of Christian privilege.
For centuries, the Western world has been dominated by Christianity. Initially, that was mainly Roman Christianity (though the Orthodox churches held sway in the Eastern parts of the Western world). After the Protestant Reformation, the Western Christian world fragmented into a number of religious pieces, but even so most Westerners were Christians of one sort or another. As we have moved through the modern era into the post-modern era, however, the churches have certainly lost their privileged position in European culture. While they still have an obvious institutional presence, they no longer exercise much influence on the minds and hearts of most Europeans.
In the United States, where there is, of course, no officially established religion, Christianity is a bigger deal than it is in Europe, but study after study has shown that even in this country, the number of people participating in churches is on the decline, and the fastest growing religious group in this country is “unaffiliated.” It is to be expected, I think, as time goes on that Christianity will have less influence on the mind and heart of the average American. Ultimately, we are likely to lose our privileged cultural position.
For many if not most committed Christians, this is a scary thing to contemplate. The mainline churches (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, United Churches of Christ, etc.) are already confronting this reality more urgently, for our churches have been the first to experience significant and noticeable shrinkage. Yet, there are signs that even the evangelical churches (the folks who brought us, among other things, the mega-church) are experiencing signs of decline, though most of them are still in a position where it largely goes unnoticed. Church leaders find themselves worrying more and more about their institutional futures, sometimes from an attitude of faith and sometimes from one of fear.
But this loss of Christian cultural privilege is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if we believe there is more to the Gospel than just how many people sign up to some version of it. For as the churches lose their privileged position, they also lose power. Some day, American politicians will not find it necessary to wave some kind of Christian credential in front of voters. Christian leaders will eventually find that they don’t have special access to political power. And in losing that privilege and power, the Christian movement may find an important piece of our soul. We may find a new, compelling power to the Gospel when it no longer enjoys a special cultural status.
We sometimes forget, I think, that the New Testament was written in a very different cultural context. Yes, it was in the Middle East and not in northern Europe or America. But that’s not the aspect of culture that I’m talking about. What I’m pointing to is the fact that the authors of the New Testament, and the Christian communities in which they worshiped, did not enjoy a position of privilege or of power. Rather, they had a deep awareness that their decision to become a follower of Jesus was deeply counter-cultural. So much so, that many of them lost their lives over it. The vision of the kingdom of God presented in the remembered teaching of Jesus and expanded upon by writers like St. Paul was consciously preached as an alternative to Roman Imperial culture. The brutal violence of Rome was answered by the deep pacifism of the early church. The privileges of the rich were answered by early Christians with a demand of justice for the poor. The outcasts became the in-group, the might of Cesar was exchanged for the powerful vulnerability of Christ. Indeed, St. Paul himself was able to speak of the power of the Gospel as revealed only in weakness, in vulnerability and humility. These were not values Rome aspired to. Nor are they values that America aspires to.
We live in the midst of massive social change, and that includes religious change. This can feel threatening, but it can also be exhilarating. Perhaps in willingly surrendering our privilege and our power, we will discover a power in the Gospel that we have never known before, a power that hasn’t been known since the early church was given legitimacy and gave up its alternative vision of the kingdom of God in favor of the seductive power of Rome.