The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Persecution Complex

May 26th, 2007 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history

Another one of those questions that got me started as a child, was “How did Christianity get to be so popular?” The more I learned about it, the less I liked it, and I couldn’t get over the fact that the Roman should have driven the whole thing out of existence very early on.

It was miraculous (to me) that anyone would be foolish enough to admit to being a Christian, much less willingly stand around for torture and death. The lengths to which a person will go simply to be obstinate no longer surprise me. However, I still fail to understand what would so wind a person up about this faith when there were dozens of similar faiths to follow.

One key question is to ask why the Romans persecuted the Christians. The modern mind imagines that Roman jurisprudence must have been quite shabby indeed to throw so many tidy, well-dressed, little-old-ladies to the lions.(Actually, I’m working on the question of “Who were the early Christians?” now, but they certainly weren’t a socially conservative lot.)

The Romans had a thing about civil unrest. It really bothered them. So much so that they really put the kibbosh on anybody who would stir up revolt. The Romans had very strict laws prohibiting secret societies, and all parties or gatherings had to be approved by the local governor. This meant that every religious organization had to be approved by the Roman government. Life-affirming groups that got along well with their neighbors had no problem.

There had been issues with the Jews. Their henotheistic refusal to perform patriotic ritual or civic obligations struck their neighbors as distinctly anti-social and possibly treasonous. Since the Jews wouldn’t eat with Gentiles, the primary form of Roman socialization, which may have helped to integrate their culture, was not open to them. However, the Jews paid their taxes and didn’t proselytize, so the Romans made special arrangements for the Jews.

Initially, the early Christian groups were seen as one of several offshoot Jewish groups, so when these were first seen to shirk their taxes and openly proselytize, the Romans looked to the Jewish authorities to curtail their own. Once the early Christians repudiated their connection to the Jews, they became an illegal group, and were officially classified as a terrorist organization around 200CE.

And there you have it. The Christians weren’t persecuted because their faith was somehow superior or that they had some secret truth. It’s not because the Romans thought their own gods to be lacking or the newfangled Christian theology to be so special. Early Christian piety wasn’t so astounding as to inspire some kind of devilish pagan uprising. The first Christians were persecuted by the Romans because they were terrorists who memorialized political enemies of the Roman state.

Once this group went underground, its anti-Roman lineage attracted a great many who would seek to overthrow the Romans, if not simply their local bosses. The more oppressive the Romans became, the greater numbers the Christians would attract. Seems like this was a bad setup for the Romans over the long run.

Just for good measure: didn’t legalize Christianity. His last co-emperor, Galerius, had taken special pains to trouble the Christians. It was in final stand of come-uppance that Constantine forced Galerius, himself, to declare Christianity to be legal and untormented within the empire. Constantine never ‘accepted’ Christianity exclusively, wasn’t baptised until near death, and favored his Sol Invictus cult gear when he went out on the town.

It is probable that Constantine saw an opportunity to co-opt the hierarchy of this newly forming cult, and to make the monotheism within it work to exclude all other cults. With this in mind, he exerted effort to unify this new faith across the whole empire. He dictated the tone and direction of the Council of Nicea, (even appearing each Thursday in a white, polyester jumpsuit as the returning Savior for their benefit). His mum kicked off the house-brand tourist industry, and he lived with his teenage girlfriend in a big house in Memphis with a swimming pool behind the carport and thick, white, shag carpet on the living room ceiling. “Can I have another peanut-butter-an-nanner sandwich, maw?”

What? You always read to the end of my religion posts? Ho! Ho! Sure you do.

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