Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Bullies And Saints Part 1: From Christ to Constantine

I really enjoyned John Dickson's Bullies And Saints: An Honest Look At The Good And Evil Of Christian History. Well...maybe 'enjoyed' is not the right word, as a lot of it was sobering to read. Perhaps 'appreciated' is a better word. There is much to learn from the record of bullies and saints in church history lest we repeat their failures or fail to replicate their successes. And in case you are wondering if this is boring and irrelevant, I felt like story after story matched today's headlines in terms. Truly, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. 

I am going to do a series of posts where I cut and paste from his book. Where I fill in words, you will see [brackets]. I use ellipses for all the places where I know there is a gap, but (because of how Kindle highlighting works) I am sure there are many places where I fail to note what's written between two sentences I put next to each other. If what I post feels disconnected or clunky as you read it, that's my editing, not his writing :) 

The first installment is the most positive. The church's reputation prior to Constantine was pretty solid. This post will give some highlights of the early church; when Constantine enters the scene, things begin to change as the bullies begin to challenge the saints... 

* * * * * * * * * *

Disregarding Christianity on the basis of the poor performance of the church is a bit like dismissing Johann Sebastian Bach after hearing Dickson attempt the Cello Suites...We know to distinguish between the composition and the performance. Jesus wrote a beautiful composition. Christians have not performed it consistently well…

Love certainly does not feature in the best-known moral codes of the pagan world (Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome). Universal love is not there in the proverbs of Egypt, the Code of Hammurabi, the ethics of Plato and Aristotle, the 147 maxims of Delphi, or the wonderful moral discourses of Seneca, Epictetus, or Plutarch. What we find, instead, in these Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greco-Roman moral teachings are things like justice, courage, wisdom, and moderation—the four cardinal virtues of western antiquity. There is hardly a mention of love, mercy, humility, or non-retaliation.

Where we do find an emphasis on love is in Jesus’s Jewish background.
“On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen… went before Hillel, [who] made him a proselyte. He said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, memorably wrote about Jesus’s intensification of Jewish traditions. Although not really a Pharisee himself, he was closest to the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who preached love, but he pointed the way further to unconditional love—even of one’s enemies and of sinners. As we shall see, this was no sentimental teaching.

Here is the central moral logic, the original melody, of Christianity. God’s love must animate the Christian’s love for all. The obvious fact that this moral logic did not translate into a consistent moral history is the dilemma at the heart of this book.

There is a second melody line that should be held in mind as we assess the church’s performance. From the beginning Jews and Christians insisted that every man, woman, and child is created in the imago Dei, the “image of God.”

“When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.” (Gen 5:1–3) The parallelism is unmistakable. Just as Adam had a child in his likeness and image, so every man and woman bears God’s image. To be made in the imago Dei is to be regarded by the Creator as offspring. The expression does not refer to any particular capacity in human beings. It describes our relation to the Creator.

All human beings, regardless of their ability or usefulness, are equally and inestimably precious because they are considered children of the Creator and therefore our own kin.

Genesis 9:6 says that no one should murder another person, “for in his own image God made humankind.” In the New Testament, Jesus’s half-brother, James (yes, Jesus had a half-brother), insists that we should not even “curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas 3:9).

The former Chief Rabbi of Britain, the much-celebrated intellectual Lord Professor Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (what a title!), wrote in his 2020 book Morality, 
“That is what makes the first chapter of Genesis revolutionary in its statement that every human being, regardless of class, color, culture or creed, is in the image and likeness of God himself. In the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. What Genesis was saying is that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.”
For one thing, it is clear that “love of enemies” and “the image of God” drove much of what was unique in the history of Christianity, as even the most begrudging historians and philosophers will acknowledge. The church is at its best, in history and today, when it performs these melody lines contained in its founding documents.

Then again, reminding ourselves of the moral logic of Christ and the New Testament makes the story I am going to tell all the more tragic. The bigotry, selfishness, and violence of the church, whether in the Crusades, Inquisitions, wealth accumulation, or the horrors of child abuse, are not only departures from broad humanitarian principles. They are a betrayal of the specific mandate Christ gave his movement.

* * * * *

The church under Roman rule, from Emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37) to Emperor Constantine (AD 306–337), specialized in what you might call “losing well.” Christians accepted that the state had the right to use force against evildoers, but it held that they themselves had no such right…The very structure of their faith—grounded in Christ’s sacrifice—forbade revenge and demanded compassion, even toward enemies.

In those days the church was more likely to be mocked for its devotion to philanthropy and martyrdom—literally mocked for these things—than for bigotry or violence. In those days you could never have imagined that Christians would one day appear as the bullies…

Ignatius was the bishop of the churches of Antioch in Syria. Sometime during the reign of Emperor Trajan (AD 98–117), he was arrested and ordered to stand trial in Rome. Accompanied by ten soldiers, Ignatius was taken on the several-month overland journey through Turkey then on to Greece before arriving in the capital, where he was executed…

Throughout his journey he was permitted to write to Christians in various towns along the way. Seven of his letters survive. They are filled with the call to “love,” a word that appears no fewer than sixty-four times in the collection. In his letter to Christians in Ephesus, he pleaded:
“Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope of repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.”
...Ancient Christians were not timid. They did not adopt a posture of peaceful resistance through a kind of slave mentality of the bullied. Nor was their religion an opiate that dulled them to social realities here and now. In fact, reading the early sources, it is clear they actually felt like they were the victors! They believed that true power to change the world lay not in politics, the judiciary, or the military but in the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

                                                                              * * * * *

At the dawn of the fourth century, seemingly out of nowhere, Rome launched its greatest ever campaign of violence against the church…. an empire-wide suppression of Christians known to historians today as the “Great Persecution.” It was unlike anything that had come before in intensity, duration, and geographical spread…

The first edict, dated 23 February 303, decreed that churches should be demolished and their Scriptures burned. According to the emperor’s edicts, Christians were also forbidden to assemble. Freed slaves who confessed Christ were re-enslaved. And any believers in the upper echelons of society, including in academic posts, lost their positions and social rank… A fourth edict issued in the year 304 brought things to a head. The law mandated that every citizen should participate in sacrifices to the traditional Greek and Roman gods. Anyone who refused, as Christians must, was to be tortured until they relented, or else they were executed. Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa bore the brunt. That is where the majority of Christians lived.

We have a few Christian texts written in the middle of the Great Persecution….Lucius Lactantius (AD 240–320)… explains that Christianity emphatically connects devotion to God with compassion toward humanity. Why? Because human beings bear the imago Dei.
“Whatever you grant to man, you also grant to God, since man is the likeness of God. If we have all been given the breath of life by one and the same God, we must all be brothers, and closer than brothers too, being brothers in spirit rather than in the flesh.” This “sibling relationship is why God instructs us to do evil never and good always.”
This demands mercy and forgiveness, never revenge:
“The just man will never forgo the chance to act mercifully. He is to answer a curse with a blessing; he himself should never curse, so that no evil word may proceed out of the mouth. He should also take great care never to create an enemy by fault of his own, and if there is someone so aggressive as to do harm to a good and just man, the good and just man should put up with it in a forgiving and self-controlled fashion, exacting no revenge of his own but leaving it to the judgment of God.”
Both the founding documents of Christianity (the New Testament) and the founding centuries of Christian history (AD 30–312) provide a clear portrait of what we might call “normative Christianity.” A key aspect of that norm is the resolve to love even enemies because they, too, bear the image of God. Whatever we must say about later bad behavior—and I will say a lot—it is obvious we will not find an explanation of the church’s hatred and violence in the origins of the movement.

For the first three centuries Christians seemed like “good losers.” They believed they had already received the greatest reward—God’s love through Christ’s death and resurrection. And they were sure that his story of suffering followed by vindication was also theirs. They would win—they had won—even when they lost. All that was required of them, as they waited for God’s kingdom, was prayer, service, persuasion, and endurance of hardship. Jesus had given them a beautiful tune, and they were going to sing along.

One benefit of knowing all this, as I have said before, is that it provides a standard by which we can rightly judge all future behavior of the church. If we know the melody, we can usually pick when someone is out of key. And the first hints of discord occurred almost immediately after the Great Persecution ended.

* * * * *

No one could have predicted what was about to happen, least of all the Christians. Out of the blue, at the height of the church’s suffering, the most powerful man in the world announced he was a Christian. Whatever we make of the strange happenings in late October AD 312, this was a genuine and totally unexpected turning point in the history of the world. The most persecuted people in the empire now had the most important patron imaginable, the great “Augustus” of the western Roman Empire—soon to be the sole emperor of east and west (AD 324).

A people used to mockery and social exclusion (and worse) were now invited into the very center of power. And, perhaps most bizarrely, the Christian sign of humble self-sacrifice was now a formal part of the Roman war machine. …Eusebius adds that he himself inspected the new Roman “standard” (the banner that armies fought under) that Constantine fashioned to celebrate his new religion:

 “A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it,” he writes. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Savior’s name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters.” Eusebius concludes: “and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period…The emperor constantly made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to it should be carried at the head of the armies.”

It is difficult to convey just how strange this turn of events will have seemed to everyone, Christians included. Just a year earlier Christianity had been outlawed, on pain of death. Now it was showered with imperial protection and benefaction.One priest a few years later was so thrilled finally to have a Christian emperor that he gave a speech in the presence of Constantine declaring that the emperor was – and I can hardly bring myself to type the words—“destined to share the empire of the Son of God in the world to come.” I can almost hear the gasps from the other clergy in attendance. I am happy to report that Constantine was indignant and told the man to stop speaking and go back to praying for the emperor instead...

While Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was a definite turning point for the church, the egregious excesses of church power, wealth, and violence developed much later … Christianity was not made the official religion of the empire in this period; it was merely granted legal status equal to that of the still-dominant pagan religions.

[Around this time, Tertullian wrote],
"We are worshippers of one God, of whose existence and character Nature teaches all men; at whose lightnings and thunders you tremble, whose benefits minister to your happiness. You think that others, too, are gods, whom we know to be devils. However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us.”
Tertullian’s language of a “right” to “free” worship sounds very modern, but it is ancient and Christian.

Lactantius (AD 240–320) in his Divine Institutes, [argued] that Christianity is a religion of the mind rather than a cultural feature or an extension of the state. His lengthy chapter on “Justice” is probably the first attempt in western history to offer a sustained argument for reciprocal tolerance of all religions. If we are looking for an intellectual source of the Edict of Milan, it is Lactantius. Lactantius reasoned that coerced religion was the opposite of true religion, and so it was illogical. He pointed out that if one has to use force to advance one’s religion, the arguments in favor of that religion must be pretty weak:

“If the reasoning is sound,” he said, “let them argue it! We are ready to listen.” Violence shows you have already lost. Christians, on the other hand, are happy to die for their faith, since they know they have already won the Truth. Here is a small excerpt from his extensive treatment:
“Worship cannot be forced; it is something to be achieved by talk rather than blows, so that there is free will in it. No one is detained by us [Christians] against his will—anyone without devotion and faith is no use to God; but when truth detains, no one departs. If they [pagans] have any confidence in their truth, let them teach it to us: let them talk, let them just utter, let them have the nerve, I say, to engage in debate of some such sort with us. Religion must be defended not by killing but by dying, not by violence but by endurance. . . . There is nothing that is so much a matter of willingness as religion.”
The argument is deeply rooted in Lactantius’s Christian understanding of God’s way of relating to men and women, as a father to his children rather than as a monarch to subjects. If love is the goal—love for God and neighbor—religion can never be a matter of force…

Eighty years after Lactantius, a pagan orator named Libanius would plead before Theodosius I for Christian tolerance of pagan shrines and officials. He used Lactantius’s own arguments (about the centrality of persuasion) against Christian zealots. He reminded them that “in their very own rules”—i.e., in the teachings of earlier Christians— “persuasion meets with approval and compulsion is deplored.” Thus, if you “resort to force . . . you would obviously be breaking your own rules.” Christians broke those rules often enough in the centuries that followed...

The temptation to overthrow pagan religion must have been great in AD 324, when Constantine defeated the eastern Augustus, Licinius, to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Yet, we have a public letter from Constantine written in the wake of his victory. In it he explains that he will not remove traditional practices.
“For it may be that this restoration of equal [religious] privileges to all will prevail to lead them [pagans] into the straight path. Let no one molest another, but let everyone do as his soul desires.”
Jefferson was aware that the west’s first argument for religious liberty went back to Lactantius and Tertullian… Jefferson’s private book collection contains copies of both Lactantius and Tertullian. It turns out that in Jefferson’s private copy of his Notes on the State of Virginia, query XVII (on religious freedom), he had written out in Latin the very passage from Tertullian quoted earlier:
“[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us.”
I want to outline one important way everyone benefited from Constantine’s conversion: he greatly enhanced the church’s charitable services…Many of the legal and cultural changes made during his twenty-five-year reign explain both the best and worst of Christianity for a millennium or more.

For example, certain tax breaks allowed the church to become the principal source of social welfare in the west for the next fifteen hundred years. On the other hand, the political influence given to bishops eventually made some of them as wealthy and powerful and sometimes as wicked as any Roman senator.

This so-called Council of Nicaea produced a summary of Christian doctrine known as the Nicene Creed. The debate revolved around the recent views of a Christian priest in Alexandria named Arius, who had proposed that Jesus was a bridge between humanity and divinity, not the full incarnation of God himself…Arius’s solution was to say that Jesus was not actually God but a godlike creature. Constantine just wanted to stop all the arguing. Somewhere between two hundred and fifty and three hundred and twenty church officials, mainly bishops, attended the Council of Nicaea. Only two voted in favor of Arius’s proposal…

Constantine ended certain formal punishments, which he believed to be an affront to righteousness. He outlawed crucifixion. And on March AD 316 he also ruled that the crimes of convicted criminals should no longer be branded or tattooed on the face, since the face “has been made in the likeness (similitudo) of heavenly beauty,” the first reference to the “image of God” in secular law. Similarly, in AD 325 he tried to ban gladiatorial games. “Bloody spectacles displease us,” his decree begins. “We wholly forbid the existence of gladiators…”

On 31 January 320 he overturned the long-held Roman law penalizing those who never married or couples who never had children. He also made divorce more difficult under Roman law. In a period when divorced women were at a distinct disadvantage, this was a godsend to many (women more than men). If the husband is found to have divorced his wife on trivial grounds, “he must restore her entire dowry, and he shall not marry another woman.

In another series of proclamations in 313, 315, and 322, Constantine also tried to remove the economic impulse to abandon infants in the practice of exposure. The law stated: “If any parent should report that he has offspring which on account of poverty he is not able to rear, there shall be no delay in issuing food and clothing...

[A] law allowing untaxed bequests to churches, a thing already permitted for other corporations, would eventually have a huge impact on the church’s ability to be self-sufficient… What seemed like a small tax concession in the summer of 321 would become one of the church’s chief sources of income (property) and a principal cause of understandable criticism. The church was granted tax-free status because it was effectively the empire’s charity arm. This was something entirely new…

Charity formed no part of the major moral discourses of the era, whether in Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca, Epictetus, or Plutarch…there was not much to go around, so it made little sense to share what excess you had beyond your circle of family, friends, or clients. Poverty was often seen as a punishment of the gods or, in a less religious mode, as a balancing principle of the universe. The world is on an endless loop or cycle—so many believed—and the “rational principle” of the cosmos has a habit of redressing the injustices of former run-throughs…Plotinus was one of the more high-minded philosophers of the era. Yet even he could imagine that the destitute somehow deserved their destitution (he says the same thing about sexual assault, but I thought it best not to give the full quotation). Within such a view, there just was not much to motivate people to care for those outside their circle of loved ones.

Teresa Morgan is Professor of Graeco-Roman History at the University of Oxford. She wrote the standard volume on mainstream ethics in the Roman world. In a 2019 interview I asked her what she regards as Christianity’s most distinctive contribution to ancient life. She said charity:
“This is a world with no social safety nets. But Christians create social safety nets. They are the people who are notorious for looking after the widows, the poor, the orphans, the people who in most of society are just slung out onto the street…”
One final piece of evidence comes from fifty years later, right at the outbreak of the Great Persecution (AD 303–312). In his much-studied Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, Cambridge University’s Arnold H. M. Jones noted that the emperor spoke of God mainly as a God of power. His favorite expressions were: Mighty One, Highest God, Lord of All, and God Almighty. “Only rarely does he speak of him as the Savior,” Jones notes, “and never as loving or compassionate.”

Compared to the consistent language of love dominating the first three hundred years of Christian literature, Constantine’s rhetoric about God was grand and austere. This might not be good Christian theology, but it was excellent imperial religion and well suited to the aspirations of the Roman people. Many good Romans would have been attracted to this way of thinking and speaking about Christianity. And many Christians happily sang along...

Constantine’s record is a strange combination of peacemaking and violence, of humanitarian reform and bigotry, of legislated religious freedom and growing intolerance toward Jews and pagans… The conversion of Constantine to the way of Christ opened the door to the church’s own conversion to the ways of the world, to the ways of power, wealth, and even violence, in the name of Christ.

The once good losers would sometimes become very bad winners.

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