Anno Domini or Common Era?

In a previous post I mentioned offhand how I found it strange to see an academic use the term A.D. instead of C.E. 9 years ago this week, I started my postsecondary education. I don’t recall ever seeing A.D. used in the following 6 years of academia, plus an audited course after that, except maybe in some classic texts written at least a decade earlier. Many of them were classes that did talk extensively about events in time periods where the clarification is necessary – the biblical time period, essentially. Some of those years of academia were in seminary after all. Most if not all books I’ve read since then have similarly used C.E. and B.C.E. In fact, I’m pretty certain that seminary – and probably undergrad before it – explicitly specified in style guides for writing that we were to use C.E. and B.C.E.

Why the shift? In short, I think A.D. carries some problematic colonialist overtones to it. A.D. stands for Anno Domini, Latin for the year of our Lord. It does not stand for “After Death” as many English-speakers assume – I know I did for years as a kid. To put it simply, how would it feel if every time you referred to something in history, you had to refer to it as the year of our Lord, when you don’t believe that Jesus is your Lord? That is a constant reminder that your beliefs are in a position of cultural inferiority to Christendom.

In fact, the only real argument I’ve heard made in favour of A.D. – other than “we don’t like change” which I don’t really count – is that it is a reminder of Christian influence on the world. For many Christians, that’s an encouraging positive influence, at least as long as you overlook many of the abuses of power that went with it. For many Christians, that’s not nearly as encouraging and could be a very harmful trigger if they already have negative experiences with Christian dominance.

As an Anabaptist, I believe that every person must make their own decision whether to follow Jesus or not. We cannot force people at the point of the sword or a gun to be a Christian. Using A.D., to me, is more subtle but carries a similar strategy. It tries to force the whole world to speak in Christian language. It tries to hang on to saying “this is a Christian society!” Regardless of the fact that many in our world are not Christians and that claim is simply not accurate, I also don’t think this is a healthy attitude for Christians to take. We shouldn’t force anybody to be Christian or even pretend to be Christian by using Christian language. I don’t think that’s how Jesus would operate. He invites people into a beautiful Kingdom of love and grace. He does not coerce them into being part of Christian domination.

If a simple change in our language is a way to not antagonize our neighbours, why wouldn’t we do that simple act of love? Common Era (and Before Common Era) is the new standard in many circles. Yes, we’re still setting dates around the life of Jesus – that would be impractical to try to reset to a different starting point – but we’re no longer forcing a statement of religious affiliation every time somebody wants to talk about what year it is.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.