Friday, 19 April 2013

Modern Niceties

 Secularist Persecution

In the early chapters of his book on Constantine, Peter Leithardt sets the scene of Constantine's accession to the purple, documenting the reign of Diocletian. As part of the scene-setting, he reviews the Diocletian persecution of the Church, which commenced in 303AD.  It was pretty gruesome stuff.  The move was a failure, although the suffering and bloodshed real enough. 

Leithardt also reviews modern revisionist views of Roman persecution of Christians in general, and Diocletian's in particular.  The revisionism began with the Enlightenment which had a general commitment to a piece of deliberate propaganda: the Christian religion was perverse superstition; therefore, the classical age that preceded it was the watershed of human sophistication and cultural maturity.  The Enlightenment was deliberately styled as a movement to recapture of the high points of classical culture, so that mankind could continue on its glorious upward trajectory.  In order to do so it must throw off the chains of Christian superstition and recapture the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. 

This particular piece of propaganda meant that the persecution of the Church by the Roman Empire needed some decent revisionist work.
  The first plank was to paint Christians as near madmen: stubborn, obstinate, narrow minded, and bigoted, deserving all they got.  The second move was a corollary: to cast Roman magistrates as tolerant, mild, and restrained.

Liethardt cites Edward Gibbon as a classic:
"Such was the mild spirit of antiquity that the nations were less attentive to the difference than to the resemblance of their religious worship," Edward Gibbon wrote from the comfort of his study.  [In other words, the Romans were an inclusivist lot.]  He avowed that Roman magistrates who persecuted Christians did so reluctantly, "strangers" as they were to the "inflexible obstinacy" and "furious zeal" of bigoted Christians.   If Christians were persecuted, they had only themselves to blame: "as they were actuated, not by the furious zeal of bigots, but by the temperate policy of legislators, [the officials'] contempt must often have relaxed, and humanity must frequently have suspended, the execution of those laws which they enacted against the humble and obscure followers of Christ."  [Peter Leithart,  Defending Constantine: The Twilight of and Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010), p. 25.]
A second piece of revisionist history requires that Roman persecution be placed in a more acceptable category of behaviour.  It has been suggested that not all persecution is created equal: some kinds are more tolerable and acceptable than others.  We need to distinguish between religious persecution, on the one hand, and political persecution, on the other.  Religious persecution is when people are persecuted and punished for their religious beliefs.  Clearly this is monstrous because religious beliefs are all alike speculative and represent one ignorant speculation punishing another.  Just as well persecute the fool who believes the moon is made of green cheese. 

Roman persecution of Christians was not religious persecution.  It was political persecution and that makes it decidedly of a higher, better order. This amounts to another variant of the "Christians deserved it" revision.  Citing Frederick Pollock who gave this ratiocination its modern form, Leidhardt writes:
Romans had no "distinctively theological incitement to persecution."  Believing they had a corner on the truth, however, medieval Christians became intolerant of error out of love for the wandering soul of human beings.  Roman persecution was "tribal."  True the gods figured into the picture, but they figured in a political picture.  Regarding the gods as "the most exalted officers of the state," Romans naturally saw Christians as either "a standing insult to the gods" or "a standing menace to the Government," but in either case "bad citizens." 

Christians who refused to honor the gods who are guarantors of Roman imperium were more than a nuisance; they endangered the prosperity and existence of Rome itself.  Roman persecution was thus "essentially a measure of public safety."  For Roman emperors, "the removal of the danger . . . is not merely justifiable, but a plain duty of self-preservation."  Romans did not persecute from bigotry and zeal, as Christians later did, but out of political necessity.  (Ibid., p. 26f)
Ah, those noble Romans; those bigoted Christians.  This is the sort of stuff of which modern history has been made.

At this point, the ancient Romans were far more enlightened than modern historians.  The Roman imperium understood  well enough what the modern world in its self-willed ignorance denies: that the state is profoundly and inescapably religious.  The Romans persecuted the Christians because they were "a pollution that aroused the wrath of the gods."  The state depended upon the favour of the gods.  Therefore, whilst Roman persecution was political to be sure, and had the preservation of the state in view, it was also inevitably and profoundly religious persecution: the state was a religious institution animated by the gods themselves. 

It is moderns who are the ignorant ones in this whole equation.  The modern world has banned the gods, the religious, from the affairs of state, from government, politics, and the public square.  Modernity has trumpeted the secular state.  One thing that self-consciously religious states face is the restraining belief that all laws, all institutions must please the deity and reflect the honour of the gods.  Modern secular states have no such restraint.  The only restraint is the vote of the majority.  The vote is the sole manifestation of the gods.  Consequently, the modern secular state persecutes as no state before it has ever done: it has industrialised the persecution and death of those who have no voice, no vote.

Roman persecution of Christians was both religious and political; it was bloodthirsty and exquisitely cruel, albeit sporadic and occasional.  Modern secular persecution is alike bloodthirsty and exquisitely cruel: but it has this distinction.  It is incessant, constant, and industrial.  Human history has never seen the like before. 

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