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.

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.

Re-rethinking polytheists and persecutions (a palinode)

Because any reference to the Christian rulers of Rome requires Constantine's big, giant head
Because any reference to the Christian rulers of Rome requires Constantine’s big, giant head

Every once in a while, a blogger has an idea that he or she would like to be true. Some of these thoughts remain unexpressed because one knows that there is insufficient evidence to argue for the existence of Sasquatch or of dinosaurs alive in Africa.* Sometimes, a blogger can’t help oneself and tries to push the evidence farther than it can go.

And, really, this is what we expect of blogs, right?

Well, I think bloggers should hold themselves to the same standards of truthfulness and accuracy that other writers do, whether journalists or academics. This doesn’t mean always being as rigorous about hunting down proper citations or always waiting to be a proper expert, but it does mean a certain amount of care, thoughtfulness, and caution.

Because, whether you’re blogging about video games or about race in American cinema or about Christian history or about Mormons — or whether you write professional in more formal fora on those subjects — what you are hopefully seeking to express is, in fact, the truth. Seeking to unpack it, whether from obscurity or obfuscation or empty rhetoric or confusion or whatever.

So, I recant, and I remove my most recent post about polytheistic intolerance, due to this comment from Richard Burgess:

Alas, not up to your usual standards. Syncretism generally avoided clashes between religions. Actions against some religions, like the Bacchanalians, were on social grounds, not religious. The Jews they generally tolerated, although every once in a while there were isolated bouts of exile or public violence against them. Actions against Christians arose, first, because they were a new religion, which was an oxymoron for everyone in the ancient world, and failed to participate in public cult (Rome insisted that everyone except the Jews participate in public cult to preserve the Pax deorum, which is really crossing the line from religion to politics and governance) and later it was for their intransigence, and their wealth, which have nothing to do with religion, per se. By the third quarter of the third century they had generally been accept into society. The Great Persecution was an anomalous rear-guard action to fight a war that had already been lost. Manichaeans everyone hated, but there weren’t that many of them and the Romans really don’t seem to have understood them, so for the most part they seem to have been the Roman version of ‘Commies’ that people were finding under every bed. I’m not sure how much really had to do with religion per se as it did with politics (the popes, like Leo, took up the hunt for Manichaeans after the emperors had given it up, and always seemed to find them when things got slow). Christians, on the other hand, in their zeal for uniformity, right from the beginning certainly precipitated and endured more internal and strictly religious conflict that any polytheistic groups, who never argued about the meaning of their god(s) or religious observances in the way Christians did.

It would be surprising to find any society suffered no religious conflict, but when you consider the enormous religious diversity of the Roman empire and the fact that we are talking about a period of, say, 500 or 600 years, the empire’s official tolerance toward just about every religion and its general lack of religious conflict is indeed an amazing, though by no means perfect, model that the modern world would do well to imitate.

My response to the very substantive first paragraph

Sadly for my last post, all true. Part of me wonders if intermittent persecutions of Christians might not have continued after Diocletian, but we’ll never know. I do know that intermittent persecutions of Christians and other minorities have been an occasional aspect of Indian/Hindu history, but — again — uncommon. And the Hindus, like the Romans, have not been 100% all for persecution for all time.

This fact, to turn back to the Romans, is a fact to be considered. When we hear, ‘Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire,’ we imagine that from Nero to Diocletian, every Christian everywhere feared for his or her life and was completely barred from normal public life, hiding in catacombs amongst the corpses of martyrs.

But, in fact, persecution was an intermittent affair for the first three centuries of Christian life, and not all of it was state-sponsored — the martyrs of Lyon were victims of mob violence, if you read the text closely enough. And when persecution was state-sponsored, its enforcement was not uniform, anyway — like any government policy, especially in the ancient world. And what it involved also varied — not necessarily death.

All religious persecution in the Roman world had a social and political element to it, whether Bacchanalians in 186 BC, or the various times Jews were kicked out of Rome, or the different persecutions of Christians, or the universal distaste the Mediterranean authorities had for Manichaeism.

How does the Christian empire compare to the polytheists?

In this regard, Christian rulers have not compared favourably to Roman polytheists/syncretists/’pagans’. This is why Anabaptist groups and Quakers have distanced themselves from state churches — this is why state churches did their best to prove Anabaptists and Quakers right by persecuting them.

The problem, as I see it, is this: Most people in the ancient world imagined that the right rites meant political success. If they didn’t actually believe it, they would at least act like it. When Constantine and his successors converted to Christianity (and, regardless of any ‘failures’ in belief and policy, I believe Constantine’s conversion was genuine), it became important for the Empire to gradually adopt Christian rites because otherwise God would be angry, and then all hell would break loose. (Maybe literally, maybe not.) As a result of this, the tables were turned on the polytheists.

Christianity has demonstrated itself to not be quite as well organised as most of us would like. We have the proto-orthodox, represented by Irenaeus, reacting with alarm at ‘Gnostic’-type groups who are seeking to separate themselves in some fashion as the true spiritual elite. But, worse than out-and-out heretics, that is, groups who use the name Christian but have very widely divergent visions of what that means from each other and what comes to be official orthodoxy, is schism. Novatianists are perfectly orthodox — Novatian’s writings on the Trinity are recommended reading. Donatists are also a problem.

We are busy excommunicating each other and deposing bishops and things long before 312, see.

When you combine this tendency towards intra-ecclesiastical regulation of belief and cult with the idea that the government has to make sure the rites are right, it’s a dangerous situation for those of divergent views.

This, at least, is my theory why Christians persecuted not just pagans and Jews but heretics and schismatics — thus regulating belief so much more closely than did the polytheists.

The second paragraph is also spot-on

Richard’s second paragraph is one with which I have long been in agreement. I will re-quote the final clause:

The empire’s official tolerance toward just about every religion and its general lack of religious conflict is indeed an amazing, though by no means perfect, model that the modern world would do well to imitate.

I think that love is the best way to bring people around to true conversion to orthodox Christianity, whether they are Mormons or ‘pagans’. I am also thoroughly supernaturalist in worldview so that I think true conversion is a matter of God’s activity in a person anyway. For these related reasons, I don’t think the church should force conformity on people outside (I also think there is a wide range of things upon which we within needn’t conform, either).

Freedom of belief is an act of love. It is also an act of protection by a government. I think the secular government should be neither religious nor secularist. It should favour Hindus, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, et al., without prejudice — both individuals and organisations. I cannot remember the subtleties right now, but I urge all Christians to read Miroslav Volf’s essay (I think the one about John?) that treats the subject in his book Captive to the Word of God. There you will see that, while not arguing for individual pluralism, there is a biblical case for pluralism in governance. (FYI: Don’t actually try to argue with me on that subject, though, because I am undoubtedly woefully inadequate.)

Anyway, I was wrong. Mea culpa. We should all think on the tolerant attitude of Romans towards those who worship and think differently — an attitude that in personal relations certainly had room for debate, so don’t worry about that!

*But, seriously, who doesn’t want that to be true?

Saint of the Week: St. Valentine

This past Sunday was Valentine’s Day.  So it is only appropriate that we commemorate Valentine as our saint this week.  The St. Valentine of choice this week is he who died in AD 270.

He was a martyr during the reign of the Emperor Quintillus (I think; my history books aren’t at hand to confirm Quintillus’ brief reign).  During the third century, Christians underwent persecution on and off.  Some emperors persecuted them heartily, others did little more than seize holy books and disallow gatherings for worship.  The sporadic nature of Roman persecution of Christians was also such that the Christians were not usually persecuted universally but only in certain places and only at certain times and only for certain offenses.

These persecutions were sometimes because foreign, non-traditional, non-ethnic religious groups were an easy scapegoat (see Nero’s persecution in the 60’s).  Sometimes they were because the Christians refused to burn incense to the emperor, claiming that since the emperor is but a man, he ought not to receive worship as a god.  Another cause of persecution is the deep-rooted Roman belief in the pax deorum — the peace of the gods.  Rome was successful because of divine favour.  Not to worship or believe in the gods was to court disaster for the Roman people.  Therefore, to prevent disaster, or to stop it (as in times of crisis such as the third century), those who did not worship the gods — “atheists” — were rooted out.

Valentine was a priest in Rome during a persecution.  It is my understanding that he was brought before the magistrate and required to recant his Christian beliefs (a fairly simple action, “Recanto.”).  He refused.  He was commanded so to do multiple times, but held firm to his faith until the end.  Since he refused to recant, he was then beaten with clubs, dragged through the City, and beheaded.

Why on earth do we go out on dates and give loved ones heart-shaped cards and chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day?  It may be the leftovers of the Lupercalia, observed on February 15.  I don’t see how a festival that consisted of men running about naked and hitting people with leather thongs, animal sacrifices, and religious solemnities becomes Valentine’s Day.  It may simply be a rootless sort of “Spring thing”, since everyone is twitterpated in the Spring.

As far as Valentine is concerned, the legend (tradition?) is that he was forbidden to perform Christian marriages but refused, and kept on getting people married, so they killed him.

Although we are uncertain of all the details of his life, he was real.  Remember that we are also uncertain about Quintillus’ life and reign.  Times of upheaval and uncertainty make for incomplete, disjointed, and occasionally contradictory records.  As well, since St. Valentine was but one of many martyrs (more than one of whom was named Valentine), and not as famous as some, we find ourselves unsure of many details.

The lesson from his life?  To stand firm in the face of persecution.  If you do so, you might have a popular holiday named after you.