Monday, April 10, 2023

Bullies And Saints Part 2: From Julian to the City of God

I really enjoyed John Dickson's Bullies And Saints: An Honest Look At The Good And Evil Of Christian History. 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. Truly, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. 

I am doing 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 was the most positive. The church's reputation prior to Constantine was pretty solid. But following Constantine's influence, leaders like Ambrose and then Augustine changed the tune the church had been singing. The changes may not strike you as jarring yet, but they are laying a foundation infused with a love of money and power on which others will build terrible things. Meanwhile, many Christians were faithfully continuing the tradition the early church had started.....

When Julian became emperor in AD 361 at age thirty, he set about dismantling the position of the church in society. He flushed Christians out of his imperial court, rescinded the tax exemptions of Constantine, banned Christian academics from teaching (more on that in a moment), and published tracts ridiculing them…

On 17 June 362 he decreed that all “masters of studies”—the equivalent of schoolteachers and university lecturers—had to be approved directly by him. Julian was effectively banning Christian instructors from all schools. (Christians would return the compliment one hundred and sixty years later, when Emperor Justinian would sack pagan professors)...

By the late 300s the Christian emperors and churches would not risk another Julian. Christians would climb the social ladder and declare their vision for society from the palace rooftops…. In previous generations bishops were forbidden to be chosen from among the elites of society. Pretty soon, however, church leaders were being parachuted in from the Roman Senate itself. And they would act like it.

The church in the centuries after Constantine became rich and powerful. There are deep and subtle paradoxes to get our heads around here. The obvious one is: How did the champion of the poor end up amassing untold wealth?

Ambrose represents a major social or political development in Christianity… Bishop Ambrose (AD 339–397) is an amazing historical figure: elite statesman, experienced legislator, friend of emperors, as well as Christian convert, poet, and preacher… Not only did his consecration as bishop make clear that elites would now be welcomed into the highest ranks of church authority… Ambrose himself showed the way to a new muscular form of Christianity, one that was not afraid to boss people around for Jesus, for the good of society.

Ambrose’s eloquence in the pulpit, his personal donations to the church coffers, and his huge emphasis on caring for the poor made him extremely popular. Here was an upper-class Roman who was also a “man of the people.” His efforts to make his churches a kind of alternative society in Milan paved the way for a new conception of the role of the bishop as a “public Christian…” He was a cross between a holy man and a city mayor.

The traditional tools of the church had been prayer, service, preaching, and suffering. That had worked out pretty well. But in his work “On Duties” (AD 388), Ambrose laid out a vision of the bishop as active in society for its good. While Christians were not yet a majority in the empire, they were the most influential single association.

One of the first tests of Ambrose’s approach to the church in society was his insistence in AD 383–384 that the statue of the goddess Victory (Nike in Greek) should be removed from the Roman Senate House… Ambrose finally won, convincing Emperor Valentinian II to remove the statue.

[After giving other examples of Ambrose becoming increasingly involved in civic disputes and using his clout to get societal standards to conform to church expectations…]

A key point to observe in all this is that Ambrose felt that he and his clergy were wholly justified in sidelining pagans and heretics, in amassing church wealth, and in exercising wide civic influence. They alone were effecting society’s cure by establishing Christ’s new humanity in the world. Becoming a “bully” for Jesus (to put it perhaps unfairly) was for the benefit of all…

At the very time Ambrose was flexing his muscles in the west, three extraordinary bishops two thousand miles to the east were preaching on behalf of the poor, denouncing the practice of slavery, and establishing the world’s first public hospital.

The Cappadocian fathers are best known today—in theological circles—for their defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. But they were also passionate defenders of the poor and sick. Gregory of Nazianzus’s Oration 14, “On Love for the Poor,” is arguably the most systematic explanation of the centrality of charity ever composed.

“We must regard charity as the first and greatest of the commandments since it is the very sum of the Law and the Prophets…its most vital part I find is the love of the poor along with compassion and sympathy for our fellow man. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor and to all those who are victims of disasters from whatever cause.”

There was no such thing as free medical care available for all, until Basil. Basil’s idea, what he called his Ptocheion or “Poorhouse,” employed live-in medical staff who cared for the sick, drawing on the best traditions of secular Greek medicine. The “healthcare centre” (there is no other way to describe it) included six separate departments: one for the poor, another for the homeless and strangers, a house for orphans and foundlings (the church in the fourth century was still collecting exposed infants), a completely separate section for lepers, rooms for the aged and infirm, and a hospital proper for the sick.

Basil was one of those Christians, drawing on the ancient Jewish tradition, who believed that if you had resources and withheld them from those in need, you were actually stealing from them. In a blistering sermon on Jesus’s parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13–21), Basil declared,

“The bread that you hold back belongs to the hungry. The coat that you guard in a chest belongs to the naked. The shoes that you have left wasting away belong to the shoeless. The silver that you have buried in the ground belongs to the needy. In these and other ways you have wronged all those you were able to provide for.”

By 390, the old imperial capital saw the establishment of the first western equivalent of the Basileias. It was founded by perhaps the wealthiest woman in the empire, Fabiola [who] at some point, embraced Christianity. Feeling convicted about her wealth, she discarded her jewels and silken clothes and wore instead the dress of a plebeian and the robe of a slave.

Fabiola sold her vast property holdings and distributed everything to the poor. Part of this involved founding what Jerome called “an infirmary.” Fabiola “gathered into it sufferers from the streets,” Jerome reports, “giving a nurse’s care to poor bodies worn with sickness and hunger."

We have Basil and Fabiola to thank for an institution we now take for granted. It may be more accurate to say that we have Basil’s older sister, Macrina (AD 327–379), to thank for the whole show. Although wealthy, Macrina also sold her estate and gave everything to the poor, living out her years in a community of other contemplative women who studied, prayed, and worked a farm to sustain themselves. Together, these women also rescued infants who had been left abandoned. They raised the children within the community.

As a local bishop, Gregory of Nyssa also preached weekly sermons. One of these sermons left us with history’s first full-throated attack on the practice of slavery. Christian tolerance of slavery was an inexcusable blindspot for many Christians…but it was not an outcome of Christianity. Let me set all this in a more ancient context…

It is true that the New Testament nowhere tells Christians to put an end to slavery. It is instruction on how to live within a seemingly unchangeable Roman system. An analogy might be the instruction in the New Testament to honor and obey the emperor (1 Pet 2:17). This tacitly tolerates pagan hereditary dictatorships, but it would be wrong to think of it as an endorsement of the system.

The New Testament does, however, explicitly condemn “slave traders” as “unholy and profane” and “contrary to the sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:9–11). Christians in the second and third centuries also took innovative measures to moderate slavery from within. By AD 115, for example, churches were establishing dedicated funds to pay for the manumission (formal release) of slaves. This ministry grew to become a significant aspect of Christian charity in the first few centuries. Partly in recognition of this ministry, Constantine granted bishops the authority to manumit slaves at church expense in a decree of 18 April 321. This bestowed on former slaves the full rights of Roman citizenship….

Christians sought to moderate slavery from within. Sadly, we do not know of anyone, apart from Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–395), who mounted a full-scale critique of slavery. But Christians did feel obliged to assist slaves, when they could, especially when there were sufficient funds to buy someone’s freedom. Many early Christians, of course, were themselves slaves or ex-slaves, including one of the bishops of Rome, Callistus, in the early 200s.

In a letter to his friend Alypius, a bishop in the nearby city of Thagaste (modern Souk Ahras in Algeria), Augustine reports that large numbers of men, women, and children were being kidnapped and on-sold through Hippo’s port. “They seem to be draining Africa of much of its human population,” Augustine laments, “and transferring their ‘merchandise’ to the provinces across the sea.”

The most extraordinary part of this letter tells how Augustine’s parishioners one day took the matters into their own hands. A large ship was in port, about to set sail with its human cargo. A member of the church, “a faithful Christian,” says Augustine, “knowing our custom of missions of mercy of this kind, made this known to the church.” Immediately, members of the church raided both the ship and a nearby holding cell. “About 120 were freed by our people,” he reports. Some were able to be returned to their families. Others were being housed and fed at the church. Still others had to be sheltered in the homes of local Christians around Hippo, “for the church could not feed all those whom it freed.”

The rescue operation was not exactly legal, and Augustine worried that things were about to get bad for local Christians. Augustine was not an abolitionist. In his mind, the system was an unhappy permanent feature of a fallen world. All that can be done about it is urge masters to treat their slaves well, use church funds to purchase people’s freedom, and occasionally raid slave ships.

Sadly, things rarely went further. Christians did not overthrow slavery, even when they gained the theoretical power to do so, from about the sixth century…Rowan Williams might be right that it was Christianity that “lit a long fuse of argument and discovery [about slavery], which eventually explodes” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But we can all agree that the fuse was too long.

This is what makes Gregory of Nyssa’s speech against slavery fifteen hundred years before Frederick Douglass so remarkable…Gregory preached this sermon in about the year 380, right around the time Ambrose was cross-examining heretics, leading protests to prevent imperial use of church buildings, and complaining over Christians having to pay for a synagogue they burned down.

Sometimes the darkest and brightest moments of church history happen at the same time...we often find beauty and discord together at the same time, though not always in equal proportion. Gregory and Ambrose were both great men... One embodied the very essence of Christ’s teaching. The other was as quintessentially Roman as he was Christian. For better and worse—and I do mean both—it was Ambrose who set the model for church-state relations in the west for the decades and centuries to come.

With Christians slowly becoming the majority in the empire, and imperial officials looking to bishops for guidance in the affairs of state, some very important developments occurred in rapid succession.

One of the most significant of these was the theological justification for state violence. In the fifth century church leaders began to devise a distinctively Christian account of state violence. One of the most politically consequential intellectual developments in the first millennium of Christianity came from one of the most capacious minds of the period. Saint Augustine started to theorize about “ just war.

As more and more Christians filled administrative positions in the empire, and more and more bishops gained access to the imperial “ear” (on the model of Ambrose of Milan), it was perhaps inevitable that Christian intellectuals would be invited to offer guidance to rulers on how a Christian regime is meant to conduct its wars.

This involved some elaborate thinking. How does the religion of “love your enemy,” the religion of a cross, provide advice to the most successful military machine the world had ever seen… For Christians…thinking about warfare was new and foreign. The Old Testament contained stories of holy war, but Jews themselves in this period had long believed that Joshua’s conquest was unique, designed to secure the land of Israel at its foundation. It was not a model for broader conquest…

In Christian theology from the second to the fourth centuries, these Old Testament wars were usually interpreted allegorically. They were known to be genuine historical battles, but their meaning for Christians was entirely symbolic, having to do with Christ’s victory over sin and death or the believer’s battle with their own unruly soul. Making things worse—or better, depending on our perspective—the New Testament offered no guidance whatsoever for conducting wars.

In the next few centuries, from 100 to 400, Christian thinkers opposed torture, capital punishment, and, for the most part, even participation in the army. On the other hand, a detailed church manual from this time (AD 200) known as The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus lists the professions that disqualify people from receiving formal instruction in the faith. The blacklist includes gladiators, hunters in the arena (who kill beasts for pleasure), officials and trainers for gladiatorial shows, military commanders who are obliged to execute others, and magistrates who also deal out capital punishment.The manual seems to allow regular soldiers to receive teaching (at least, they are not explicitly excluded), but if a fully instructed and baptized Christian “wishes to become a solider, let him be cast out. For he has despised God.”

Even a century later, around the year 300, Lactantius wrote straightforwardly, “A just man may not be a soldier, nor may he put anyone on a capital charge.” And, finally, rule number twelve of the Council of Nicaea, made in the presence of Constantine himself, declared that Christians who returned to being soldiers are like “dogs who return to their vomit…” It seems that nothing in Christianity’s founding documents and founding centuries prepared the church for a marriage between Christian theology and state violence.

 On 24 August AD 410 the so-called Visigoths (Germanic tribes) led by Alaric somehow managed to breach the Italian defenses and do the unthinkable: they sacked Rome… It is difficult for us, all these years later, to appreciate what a disorienting cultural catastrophe this was. Who was to blame for this catastrophe? For many, the obvious answer was the Christians. The old gods had sustained the Roman people for a millennium, and now, within a century of the first Christian emperor, the historic capital of the empire was defeated.

Augustine met this challenge head-on by producing one of the most remarkable pieces of cultural (and theological) analysis in western history, with a whopping four hundred thousand-plus word count (three or four times the size of this book). The City of God, written in installments between AD 416 and 422, turned the criticism of the pagans on its head. It presented a detailed, subtle, and devasting critique of the ethics, politics, and religion of the “earthly city” of Rome, in contrast to the reign of Christ, the true eternal city of God, which was humanity’s only hope...

The City of God was not a simplistic argument for replacing the Roman Empire with an earthly Christendom, as if Christianizing state institutions would bring peace on earth. Augustine was too realistic—some would say pessimistic—to believe that. He believed that conversion to Christianity would bring some improvements to society, especially to the poor and marginalized, but “he would have been greatly astonished by the medieval canonists [later church lawyers]who interpreted him to imply that the empire ought to be run by bishops with the pope at their head,” writes Oxford’s Henry Chadwick...

By Augustine’s time in the early fifth century, it had become a practical impossibility to keep Christians out of the army; there were just too many Christian citizens, and some of them had risen to become generals. In AD 418, in the very period he was writing The City of God, Augustine wrote to Boniface, the tribune of Africa and a Christian, “Do not suppose that no one can please God who as a soldier carries the weapons of war.” So long as fighting is absolutely necessary and peace remains the goal, warfare can be good:

“Your will ought to aim at peace; only necessity requires war in order that God may set us free from necessity and preserve us in peace. For we do not seek peace in order to stir up war, but we wage war in order to acquire peace.”

This is something new: a Christian leader directly urging state powers to fight. He utterly rejected the usual Roman justifications for war: enlarging the empire, protecting honor, removing iniquitous nations, or assuming that Roman subjugation was itself a kind of “peace…” It is clear that Augustine saw warfare—even just warfare—as a tragic necessity in the “earthly city,” which can only ever be partially Christianized through the principles laid down.

In Augustine’s view, even just wars are not “holy.” And they are certainly not happy, even in victory. Still, Augustine’s arguments were to have an influence out of all proportion to his brief concessions about the necessity of state violence.

Augustine himself embodies the paradox of church history. He was responsible for establishing a theological justification for state violence at the very same time he was trying to liberate slaves.

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