The Conflict of Social Innovations: Christian Theologies, Empires and Modern Constructions of Race

The victorious Emperor Constantine’s embrace of the Christian faith and his support for the Christian Church launched one of the most far-reaching and controversial social innovations in the history of the world. The Emperor Theodosius consolidated this innovation by establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, but later generations would disagree on the desirability of this change.  Greek Orthodox Christians interpret the Bible as supporting this innovation and honor Constantine as a saint in heaven, but Dante described Constantine’s place in hell (Inferno 19.115-17), and many Protestant Reformers from the sixteenth century to the present have interpreted the Bible as condemning every project of Christian Empire as a fundamental betrayal of Christian faith.

FBK Sede

Via San Croce 77, Trento

While there were many forms of imperial domination in antiquity, the ancient world did not have a conception of race or a practice of racial discrimination in the modern sense of the world.  One of the most important social innovations of the modern world came when Christian European empires began to conquer the rest of the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and developed modern concepts of race, which divided the world into “whites,” “blacks,” and, in the United States, “red men” (indigenous Amerindians) and “yellow men” (from East Asia).  To support this innovation, racist readers of the Bible interpreted the so-called curse of Canaan/Ham in Genesis 9 as authorizing the brutal enslavement of all Africans of every generation.  However, beginning in the early sixteenth century other Christians forcefully condemned the mistreatment and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and from the middle of this century some Christians vigorously opposed the institution of slavery, launching one of the most important biblical debates in world history.

The tragic history of effects of Christian social innovations in empires and racial oppression poses a continuing challenge to Christian life and thought today.  This presentation will briefly review the historical legacy and will discuss some of the most important Christian social innovations of the present time regarding the struggle against racism and the legacy of colonialism.

Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author ofTrue and Holy: Christian Scripture and Other Religions, which received the Catholic Press Association first prize in 2015 for best academic book on scripture.  He is the co-author with Peter Feldmeier of The Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada.  His other books include:Revelation the Religions and Violence, The Buddha and the Christ, and Toward a Contemporary Wisdom Christology: A Study of Karl Rahner and Norman Pittenger. He an honorary research fellow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a Trustee Emeritus of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Event date:
Wednesday, 24 May, 2017 – 17:00 to 19:00
[email protected]
Aula piccola | Fondazione Bruno Kessler | Via S. Croce, 77 – 38122 Trento



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