Politics and religion

Somehow, it seems like we live in a volatile, politicised age. Most of the people on my Twitter feed are academics, yet alongside nerdiness there is a lot of social commentary. My Facebook feed, with a more diverse cast, is similar. The rise to stardom of Jordan Peterson is tied up with hot-button political and social issues. Some days it feels like you can’t breathe without hearing about the follies of Donald Trump or the woes of Brexit or whatever new idea Doug Ford has come up with.

And everyone is digging their heels in. Everything is a zero-sum game. There is no higher ground, only winning. And if the ‘other side’ ever ‘wins’, that’s the end of the world or civilisation or whatever as we know it.

What is a Christian to do in the age of hyperbole?

First, political and social issues can’t take the place of true religion in our hearts. Yes, politics is a way to solve certain problems, but Donald Trump is neither saviour nor Satan.

Christianity has had a varying relationship with the powers of this world. Jesus was crucified by Romans after being handed over to death by the leaders of his own nation. Variously for the next two hundred or so years, Christians were sometimes persecuted and usually ignored. They were legally protected in the latter half of the third century to have that later stripped away in the final and Great Persecution in the early 300s under Diocletian.

And then, with Constantine throwing his lot in with the Christian god in 312, things started changing yet again. Not that the relationship Christian emperors was always rosy — consider the torture of Pope Liberius at the hands of Constantius, the multiple exiles of Athanasius, the judicial execution of Priscillian for heresy. Julian had a relatively mild repression of Christians, and then under Theodosius I Christianity started to really become the state religion. Meanwhile, because of its association with Roman Emperors, followers of Christianity in Persia were at times persecuted.

Becoming a state religion was not necessarily good for Christianity. David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox philosopher, thinks it was a bad thing. The story goes on, a story of Christian kings and governments, of collusion with secular powers, of being manipulated by them, of using them to repress religious opponents, of being repressed by them. Wherever there are Christians, they have some sort of relationship with government, whether persecuted under Communism and certain Islamic regimes or wielding great power under certain western regimes — but usually somewhere in between.

And we should not fear working within government, acknowledging that it is a means of working out certain aspects of discipleship — caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan (which is what true religion is about). Working with government can make for a more just society.

But that will never, ever, be perfect this side of eternity.

This means that we should keep calm and carry on, rather than freak out and throw our entire lot in with any of the demagogues or political parties and demonise our opponents.

We should love our political opponents. We should love them lavishly. And when our preferred parties fail to promote justice, or even promote injustice, we should pray for them, we should maybe even engage in normal political practices, like writing letters to MPs. But we shouldn’t get all apocalyptic or throw our hands up in despair.

It will never be perfect, because only God is perfect.

Politics isn’t religion. We shouldn’t treat it that way. Trump is (probably) not the Antichrist. Neither is Brexit the Apocalypse.

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The Martyrdom of Marriage

Thomas Becket martyred, roundel at Exeter Cathedral (my photo)

When writing about Jordan Peterson and marriage as a case example of how Christians should have a different approach to life from the world, I made reference to an excellent article by Fr John Behr, ‘From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human‘, in the current issue of The Wheel. In this article, where Fr John discusses the basis of biblical anthropology and what maleness and femaleness have to do with this, he talks about the martyrdom of marriage, as well as the martyrdom of parenthood.

Here is a way of viewing marriage most of us are unused to.

Martyrdom was long regarded in the Christian tradition as the highest expression of faithfulness to Christ. From St Stephen to St Polycarp, St Perpetua, St Cyprian, St Alban, the martyrs were seen as the pinnacle of Christian devotion. Second only were the confessors, those imprisoned but not killed for the faith. Martyrs had a guarantee of heavenly glory, even those as yet unbaptised (these communities believed in baptismal regeneration, remember).

The lapsed, who buckled and gave in, were a problem. Could their post-persecution penitence avail them anything? The traditores, who handed over church property, were even worse. Traitors.

Martyrdom helped shape the church’s image and strength as a community (an unintended consequence).

When martyrdom went away, the monks became living martyrs. They abandoned all to gain everything. They moved to the desert. They suffered to come near to Christ.

The martyr dies on behalf of something bigger than him/herself. The martyr suffers out of love of something better than this present darkness. The martyr is (literally) a witness to the glory of Christ.

In marriage, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Christ died for the church. Wives are called (controversially) to submit to and respect their husbands.

Marriage is a living death.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?

Speaking as a happily married man with close to eleven years experience, I don’t know that it is. In marriage, I must die. Or rather, ego must die. As a husband, I must love my wife. Love her the way Christ loves the church. Jesus abandoned everything for His bride. He who knew no sin became sin for His bride. He who had the form of God took on the form of a slave for His bride. He who was immortal died for His bride. He who made flesh took on flesh for His bride.

Jesus Christ was whipped, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross.

Out of love for His bride.

Marriage becomes a high calling, doesn’t it?

Out of love for God, I have to love my wife enormously. I have to die to myself for her. Every. Single. Day. What is best for her? What would make her happy? What would make her life easier? Can I care for our son in the morning so she can get some more sleep? (Yes.) Can I bathe him so she can have a break? (Yes.) Can I do some dishes? (Yes.) Can I watch chick flicks? (Yes.) Can I forego Star Trek to give her the quality time she needs? (I mean, I guess so.) Can I do our taxes on time? (Maybe. I mean: Yes.) Can I wash, hang up, and put away laundry? (Yes, but sometimes I forget step 3.)

Bachelor MJH would do dishes only when absolutely necessary. He would stay up late. He would eat too much ice cream. Drink too much beer. Vacuum only occasionally. Watch Star Trek every night. Avoid chick flicks. Marriage is a means of grace that can strip away this ego-centred life.

Instead, I put my wife before myself.

And, of course, two human persons living together are not exactly a binitarian model of the Trinity. Seeking to work out differences and difficulties with love, with humility, with patience. This is also a good place for ego to come and die, and for Christ to come and reign.

Marriage is a living death, but it is a good way to die.

And hopefully, by living this way, my marriage can witness to Christ. Like a martyr.

St George the Martyr

The icon of St George in my wallet

I don’t have time now to hunt down Hippolyte Delahaye’s book about Greek warrior saints, so I cannot confirm whether St George was real or not. However, I have already posted a dragon-free version of his life, if that interests you. The main feature of the life of St George is not, as it turns out, slaying a dragon, as much as I would like that to be the case. Rather, it is his martyrdom.

He is visually identifiable by his dragon-slaying, of course. But what I noticed looking at icons of this very popular saint in Cyprus was the fact that many of them have the sequence of his life and martyrdom around the edges of the dragon-slaying. According to tradition, St George was tortured and martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in the last persecution by the Romans.

This is how we should remember him.

St George’s Day, then, is not about the heroism of defeating evil in battle with the weapons of this world. It is about the heroism of defeating evil by standing firm in the hope set before you with the weapons of love, faith, and loyalty to Christ the King.

It is about martyrdom.

The Diocletianic Persecution gained the reputation of being both the last and the greatest persecution. After a period of relative tolerance, Diocletian had a change of heart and determined to persecute the Christians of the Roman Empire starting in 303. This persecution was carried out most effectively in the eastern half where Diocletian had supreme rule, destroying scriptures, dismantling or seizing church property, killing and imprisoning Christian leaders and Christian civil servants.

Eusebius of Caesarea believed that this persecution came upon the church because they had become too lax, too lazy, too worldly. The church had been left alone for some time. Christians were bureaucrats. Bishops could live like anyone else. They had started building big churches (like the one across from Diocletian’s palace in Nicomedia) instead of living holy lives.

The persecution was less severe in the West, particularly in the portion given to Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine, who thus manages to acquire for himself an image of being a crypto- or even open Christian in some later traditions.

It officially ended in 311, although I do not think its ferocity continued after Diocletian’s retirement in 305 and the series of civil wars that followed, 306-312.

St George was one of the victims of this persecution, a soldier torn between his duty to God and the commands of his emperor.

We face nothing so great or so large today in the West, despite what the alarmists will tell you.

Will we stand up for Jesus?

My button of St George slaying the dragon

Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

Saints of the Week: Acindynus, Pegasius, Aphthonius, Elpidophorus and Anempodistus of Persia

Here they are in a very Byzantine icon.

Today on All Saints Day, I bring back the saint of the week. And this week, you get five-for-one! These five saints are martyrs commemorated on 2 November in the Orthodox Church. I am uncertain whether they are remembered by the Miaphysite communions and the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East, but I expect they are, given the year and location of their martyrdom.

The typical version of church history we all know and love paints a fairly grim picture of life before Constantine (which wasn’t as bad as you’d think) and then transpires the Peace of the Church. Persecution is over! Churches can be built publicly — even at public expense! Bishops can live in the open — with tax exemptions! And so on and so forth.

There is a debate as to whether the Peace of the Church was a good thing or not.

But you know whom it did not necessarily profit?

Christians outside the Roman Empire.

Christians within the Empire became a protected species. And the Roman Emperor came to see himself as the great patron of all Christians, whether they were his subjects or not. At times, this meant telling the Persian Emperor what to do, which was not the sort of thing that went down well with Persian Emperors — particularly Shapur II ‘the Great’, the longest-reigning Sassanian monarch (r. 309-379).

It also meant that when hostilities between the two Empires ramped up (a frequent occurance), Christians in Persian lands could become targets of the Sassanian monarchy — seen as foreign sympathisers. Christians often felt safer within Roman territory; thus, when the city of Nisibis fell to the Persian army in 363, St Ephraim the Syrian and a group of Syriac-speaking ecclesiastics moved the School of Nisibis to the city of Edessa in Roman territory.

During Shapur’s golden era, the Christians of Persia encountered persecution just as their siblings of Roman lands had in years past. For the most part, it seems that Shapur’s targets were high-level ecclesiastics such as Shemon Bar Shabbae or Bishop Acepsimas of Hnaita.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about Persian Christianity in Late Antiquity or the sources for Byzantine hagiography to corroborate the story of the five martyrs for this week, so what I’m telling you about the events of 376 should be taken with caution — I take it from abbamoses.com. In fact, I’ll just reproduce it here for you:

Acindynus, Pegasius and Anempodistus were courtiers to King Shapur II of Persia. When the king began a fierce persecution of Christians, the three withdrew from court to a private house and, fearless of their own safety, openly exhorted their fellow-Christians to stand firm in their faith. For this they were arrested and brought before their former lord, who subjected them to many cruel tortures, from which they emerged miraculously unscathed. Seeing this, one of the king’s soldiers, named Aphthonius, embraced the Faith and was immediately beheaded. The former courtiers were then put to further tortures, but their only effect was to convince Elpidophorus, a distinguished nobleman, and seven thousand other Persians to faith in Christ. All were beheaded, but not before receiving holy Baptism. The trials of the three continued, but once again they were preserved, and even the king’s mother was led to the true faith. Finally they were killed (the account does not say how), receiving the crown of martyrdom along with the king’s mother and twenty-eight others.

This could likely be true. It’s at least the same sort of story as we find about martyrs under the Romans. Again, I have no knowledge of the sources for this quintet of martyrs so cannot say one way or the other. The Persian persecutions serve to remind us of the wider world of Christianity, not just today, but throughout all generations. It is common to remind people that Christianity was not born in Europe — it is also worth keeping in mind that the missions and growth of the Church in the Patristic period did not restrict themselves to the Roman Empire.

They also remind us that Christians in the lands of the former Persian Empire face persecution to this day, whether from the likes of ISIS or the legitimised government of Iran.

The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne (saints for the week)

This week, one of the classes I’m running tutorial seminars for is looking at martyrdom. Amidst the many interesting texts (from A New Eusebius, 2nd ed, 16-17, 20-24) was the account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, in AD 177 (#23). This account was contained in a letter sent to the churches of Asia (Minor) because the ties between the Gallic and Asian churches were strong, many Gallic Christians being in fact from Asia. Their next bishop, St Irenaeus, was himself from Asia.

This particular persecution seems to have broken out as mob violence at first; the Christians were attacked and dragged before the magistrates by their fellowmen. The authorities, now confronted with these Christians, investigated what the charges against them were — beyond the usual ‘Christians are bad as business’, as old as the riots at Ephesus in Acts.

Some of the Christians recanted their faith. Many did not. All of them, ‘apostate’ or not, were tortured and tried for their crimes — including not just being Christians and therefore not burning incense to the genius of the Emperor but also ‘Thyestean banquests and Oedipodean intercourse.’ Freud has made the second reference obvious to us; the former is to cannibalism, specifically of children; in myth, Atreus served up to his brother, Thyestes, the man’s own children. Read the play Thyestes by Seneca for the full horror of what that would entail.

This time, recantation did not help anyone. And some, when being tortured, and seeing how the faithful held up under torture, returned to the Christian faith that they had shunned to avoid a torture that had arrived anyway.

The faithful held up well in prison:

They went forth with joy, great glory and grace blended on their countenances, so that even their chains hung around them like a goodly ornament, as a bride adorned with golden fringes of diverse colours, perfumed the while with the sweet savour of Christ, hence some supposed that they had been anointed with earthly ointment as well. (ch. 35)

According to this account, people were converted to the Way by the bravery of the martyrs in the arena. I am reminded by the famous Tertullian quote:

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

For a population fond of Stoicism and its ideals of enduring with dignity any horrors and terrors of this life, the brave face put on by many Christians when faced by beasts — if non-citizens — or the sword — if citizens — would have been appealing. They would have seen that these dying people had found something truly worth living for; these Christians were people who were truly living according to the balance of nature, perhaps!

During this persecution, many members of the church at Lyons were gathered up by the authorities and tortured. 47 or 48 of them were slain for their faith. What makes this account notable for me is that many of them were afraid of torture and and actually cried out in pain — a far cry from Perpetua or Polycarp. Something a bit more human. For did our Lord not also cry out on the Cross?

Another realistic detail is the fact that while Blandina, after being tortured, is put in a basket to be tossed around by a bull. The text says:

For a time the animal tossed her, but she had now lost all perception of what was happening, thanks to the hope she cherished, her grasp of the objects of her faith, and her intercourse with Christ. (ch. 56)

I cannot help think that perhaps she was simply in shock. I know I would have been.

The martyrs were perceived as combatants. These, not monks, are the original milites Christi — soldiers of Christ. They are the brave souls whose faithfulness to and faith in Christ are truly put to the ultimate test. Are you willing to gain the world by renouncing him at the risk of your soul? What matters more — this earthly life or the heavenly life?

These are the questions posed to us by the martyrs. How faithful will we be today in our soft lives of ease?

What makes Perpetua special? Journal and Visions

Perpetua and Felicity

I read the Passio Perpetuae (from c. 204) for the second time today; the first was for a course I was auditing, this time for a course I am TAing/tutoring. First let me tell you what does not make her special: specious, imagined similarities between her and suicide bombers, as I blogged last time I read this text. And now let me tell you what makes this early third-century Latin Christian text special: Perpetua’s journal and the visions it includes.

The eyewitness editor/composer of this document included in it Perpetua’s journal from when she was in prison before her martyrdom. Thus, we get a first-hand account of the life of martyrs before martyrdom. Of the visits and bribes of fellow believers, the pleas of pagan family members to renounce Christianity, the transfers of cells, the trial. This alone makes Perpetua’s journal special.

The first of the two main things that makes it special is that it is by a woman. Very often people say, ‘Well, if you’re going to talk patristics, talk matristics as well.’ Or something like that. Well, that would be nice — it would give us an insight into how women in early Christianity thought about things. But the field of matristics includes Perpetua, Egeria (who wrote a semi-pilgrimage travelogue), and a few bits of sayings from the Desert Mothers — oh, and (apparently) a Syriac nun’s life.

So, while I really don’t care if something is by a woman in and of itself (I care if it is interesting in other ways as well, generally), in a field where so few documents are by women, Perpetua stands out. She also stands out as a Roman, since the only other female Latin writers I know of are Sulpicia (an elegiac poet), Egeria, and female imperial correspondants in the realm of epistolography. So Perpetua is special simply by showing us something of the life and thoughtworld of women in the reign of Septimius Severus.

And what a thoughtworld it is! Perpetua is also special because of her visions. People generally assume this document and Perpetua are part of the New Prophecy that spread West to Carthage (where Perpetua died) from Asia Minor — eventually, this movement within mainstream, ‘catholic’, ‘proto-orthodox’ Christianity was condemned as the Phrygian heresy or — it’s more popular name — Montanism. The editor seems to be certainly favourable towards the ‘Montanist’ position, saying that just as the Lord gave words to men of old — prophets and apostles — so He can give a new word to people today.

Mind you, we must always be cautious of these appellations. If we read a quick snap of what ‘Montanism’ is from a dictionary of heresies, we may have completely mislabelled the variety we find in Perpetua’s passion. Furthermore, even if the editor is ‘Montanist’, Perpetua may not be. Having visions does not make one a Montanist; ask the patriarch Jacob or St Peter or St Paul or various Desert Fathers or St Hildegard or St Bernard or any number of modern charismatic Anglicans (of course, some of this latter group may basically be Montanists without knowing it).

The visions/dreams are themselves interesting, the whole Montanist question aside. I am especially fond of the first. It’s so good, I’m going to break a rule and quote it in full:

I see a bronze ladder of great size, reaching all the way to heaven, and so narrow that people could only climb up one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder were fixed all kinds of iron things. There were swords there and lances and hooks and cutlasses and javelins, so that if anybody climbed up carelessly or without looking up, he would be mangled and his flesh would get caught on the iron things. (4.4) And just below the ladder there was a huge snake, asleep. He was lying in wait for people climbing up, and he was terrifying them so they wouldn’t climb up. (4.5) But Saturus climbed up first – he had turned himself in voluntarily for our sake (because he is the one who had instructed us), and then, when we were picked up, he hadn’t been there.5 (4.6) And he reached the top of the ladder and turned around and said to me, ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you. But see that that snake doesn’t bite you.’ And I said, ‘It will not harm me – in the name of Jesus Christ.’ (4.7) And from beneath the ladder, it stuck its head out slowly, as if it was afraid of me. And I stepped on its head, as if I was stepping on the first rung, and I climbed up. (4.8) And I saw a vast expanse of garden, and in the middle of it sat a white-haired old man dressed like a shepherd – a big man – milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands in white robes. (4.9) And he raised his head and looked at me and said to me, ‘Welcome, child.’ And he called me and gave me as it were a morsel of the cheese which he was milking. And I took it with hands joined and I ate. And all those standing round said ‘Amen’.

Two things strike me most about this vision: the ladder and the cheese. I cannot read this ladder imagery without thinking first of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis, where the patriarch saw the angels of God ascending and descending. As well, we have ascent imagery in later ascetic and mystical texts such as the Syriac Liber Graduum and St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. When I think ladders, I am also reminded of Andrew Louth’s book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, wherein he discusses the Neo-Platonic images of ascent that were very influential in Origen and Evagrius, in particular.

The cheese seems eucharistic to me.

Perpetua’s other visions are interesting as well. They seem strikingly real, like the sort of weird dreams actual people have. And unlike St Hildegard, Perpetua does not give us a long, involved exegesis of her dreams. We are left to see in them what we will. This I like.

The Passion of Perpetua is interesting and short. I recommend you read it.