2.The Folly of Evaluating Christianity
3.The Unpayable Debt of Salvation (You are here)
There are different ways I could break up this series on the roots of Christian violence – chronologically or thematically. Fortunately this topic comes first of all in both. Here is a possible root of violence that is present within the life of the apostles, possibly even within the life of Jesus himself. It is also a theme that is primary to Christianity and remains so.
Just a reminder, this is going to be a series of my reflections on the question at hand. I’ve said before that I’m not buying into what is “real” Christianity or not. That means I remain interested in what some might consider “merely human” developments of “real” Christianity. That also means I’m not going to pull punches in order to respect some divine core of Christianity either. There will be sacred stones upturned too.
The stone I want to turn over in this post is the identity of God that Jesus represents and the emotional relationship that evoked and still evokes from his followers. Jesus stood out from the other divine alternatives in the first century. I think there are ways that this difference can inspire Christian violence.
That isn’t to say that other ideas of God wouldn’t inspire other ideas of violence. Nor am I saying that violence is a necessary conclusion of the way in which God is described in Jesus. It is merely to say that there’s a particular Christian form of violence inspired by the particular Christian way of relating to God.
The Christian movement’s growth in the first three centuries of what we call, not co-incidentally, the Christian era is amazing. Reliable estimates don’t exist but you could guess there were as few as five hundred followers of Jesus around the time of his death (just a conservative average of Acts 1:14-15 and Acts 4:4). You could further guess that in three centuries this number could be as high as ten percent of the
Roman Empire – about six million. That’s the estimate of a historian named Erwin Goodenough (and it’s good enough for me).
Amazing as this is, Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity (pp5-8) points out it’s hardly miraculous. A growth rate of just forty percent per decade (which today is matched by Mormonism) gets you from five hundred adherents to a whopping eight and a half million in three centuries. By comparison the American Religious Identification Survey has Wicca growing by 168% in the
in the last decade of the twenty first century. That was before Twilight too! U.S.A.
Still as anyone who has tried to start a new religion will tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. Christians faced persecution of differing degrees for about half those three centuries. I believe (again leaning on Rodney Stark for my view) that this persecution actually supported Christian growth. I also believe that we can, by contemplating the meaning of this persecution for Christians, come to understand a turn to violence by Christians when the persecution ends.
Firstly we need to understand how the gods were viewed by most first century people outside of Jews and Christians. The Romans’ own creation myths were about the creation of Roman civilization. They borrowed from the Greeks primarily to explain the creation of the whole world. The Greeks themselves did not have a single creation story. One consensus though was that the world had not been created by the present generation of Gods at all. A common belief attributed creation to the Gods’ forebears who had either perished or withdrawn from the world. It was sometimes argued that the world had been created by something so unchanging and perfect that it had no personality to speak of – the unmoved mover. Today we might call this something like deism. The Gods that pagan Romans and Greeks actually interacted with however were not such a God as that.
The numerous Gods that the pagan Greeks and Romans interacted with were therefore not owed fealty as the Jews and Christians owed fealty to their God. They had no authors’ rights over people. People were free to contract an alliance with one god instead of another, with several gods at once and with some but not all.
Further the Greek and Roman Gods were not all powerful. They had spheres of influence but they weren’t the sole determinant of what happened in those spheres. Mars was the god of war, but if you won a battle you did not have to thank Mars. It wasn’t necessarily to Mars’ credit. Some battles were won by luck or through another God’s influence or in fact just by human effort.
By contrast the Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh (who would later be shared with Islam) is held to be the sole creator and determinant of all things. In fact Yahweh is so omnipotent that the concept of any human agency has at times been ruled as heretical. Yahweh is understood to have complete and absolute author’s rights over all their creation including people. We are not free to contract ourselves to other Gods. We owe this Hebrew God everything.
You might think that if God is owed everything then first century Jews could say they owe God some smackdown for their woes. However in Judaism and Christianity our positive debt is so huge that no amount of misfortune affects the scale of it. We are in debt for the ability even to have a bad day! In Roman culture it would be considered churlish to not thank the goddess Ceres for a good harvest. It would be considered wise to ask for another good year in the next and to do so respectfully with appropriate rituals. In Jewish culture thanks is due in a bad year or a good year - exactly as much thanks. The Jew or Christian holds that God owes them nothing. Also that God owes other people nothing too. The debt of the created is all one way and beyond our comprehension.
As if this wasn’t enough the Christian takes this debt and effectively doubles it. Both Christian and Jew believed in the first century that the subjugation of the kingdom of the Jews was a consequence of their failing God in some way. The shared conundrum of all Jews in Jesus’ time was how if Yahweh was indeed in charge that Yahweh’s temple was defiled, their people were diminished and their law was flaunted. A few sects believed they lived in the end times when God would soon restore their temple, people and law. But God, it was believed did not want these things in an unholy condition. They needed to be purified before restoration.
Jesus comes to represent at least two messages of purification and restoration which are a little too complicated for this post. What’s important to stress is that Christianity universalizes the condition of the Jews. The entire world is somehow suffering and tarnished and not how it should be. This is particularly evident by the lack of regard the world holds for its supposed creator. Jesus is the means of purification and restoration for the whole world and for each individual who turns to him. In order to be that Jesus had to suffer and die.
Many Jews did not recognize the means of their purification and restoration in Jesus. Moreover they understood the whole idea differently to the idea that their monotheistic deity Yahweh would send a son to do this. As the Jews understood it the covenant with God was to be restored by a human messiah who would be a perfect Adam, hence undoing the damage done by a flawed Adam in the beginning.
In this way Jews shared with a Pagan view that a person is in a healthy state if they have resolved any imbalances between themselves and the divine. Outstanding debts are unhealthy. Actually it would be fairer to say that Judaism lies somewhere between Christianity and paganism in this regard. The debt of creation can never be repaid but humanity and
in particular can at least hope to restore the covenant. Israel
When Christians declared Jesus to in fact be divine from before birth, and equal with God (the Father) in essence though not function* they destroyed any hope of a human resolution to the broken covenant. This was now achieved entirely by God and in a painful and humiliating way as well. This effectively doubled humanity’s debt. It placed us in a position of virtually never being able to repay it. For a Pagan recently Christianised this was a position of ill health with almost no cure.
Contemporary Christians may baulk at the use of “virtually” and “almost” to describe the un-reparability of our salvic debt with God. A modern Christian probably can’t imagine any feasible repayment. However the Christian of the first three centuries had a solution at hand - martyrdom.
He (Jesus) said to him “Yes Peter, I am being crucified again.” And Peter came to himself and saw the Lord ascending into heaven: then he returned to–Acts of Peter where the apostle decides to return to
rejoicing and giving praise to the Lord, because he said, “I am being crucified”; since this was to happen to Peter. Rome
“The truth is, I am afraid it is your love that will do me wrong. For you, of course, it is easy to achieve your object; but for me it is difficult to win my way to God, should you be wanting in consideration of me… Grant me no more than that you let my blood be spilled in sacrifice to God.”– Ignatius of
In these records of early Christian attitudes (whether the Acts of Peter are accurate they were shared and believed) there is a rejoicing in martyrdom itself not just a lack of fear of death. These are not reluctant martyrs. This is consistent with the hope that martyrdom repays a Christian’s debt to the divine.
We can also look at the recurring religious phenomenon of self-mortification. Here the feebleness of human worship as a response to the crucifixion prompts some people to re-enact the suffering of Jesus. Mortifications are chosen which correspond to those sufferings i.e. whipping, a crown of thorns, carrying a cross or even, in the
today, actual crucifixion. This is just sharing in Jesus wounds though. Martyrdom is an opportunity to fully respond in kind to Jesus. This would have been a great relief for Christians struggling with an inability to “close the circle” of exchange between them and the divine. Philippines
I don’t believe it was necessary for every Christian who felt this way to actually be martyred. It would have been enough to share in the possibility of martyrdom for all but the most determined. Just such mass public declarations of Christianity under persecution did occur. In the second century the entire Christian population of the region paraded past the house of a Roman governor in
Asia Minor. They protested a policy of persecution and were strong enough to go unpunished for it. (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p192)
In AD 312 however martyrdom opportunities dried up. The Roman Emperor Constantine converted. By 314 Christianity was officially tolerated. This upstart and rebel religion was on its way to political dominance. If my theory of a desire to repay divine debt has any validity the question has to be asked, “What does a martyr do when they are in power?” How is the colossal double debt of Christianity lived with?
I have good reason to believe that turning to violence against others is a natural response to these circumstances. That’s not due to any ancient document but the testimony of my own heart. When I recall the debts I feel burdened with and then think of people I consider fellow debtors who fail (refuse even?) to acknowledge that debt… something like anger and disgust can emerge. I haven’t only seen this in others. I have been it.
When our desire to honour the debt is frustrated the next best way to “honour” the creditor is sought. That search is charged by our guilt. That can mean zealously teaching some respect to those who also should be grateful. At the very least abiding people who didn’t acknowledge their creator and saviour would have been a new challenge for a pagan mindset to overcome. It would be like watching a great hero who had suffered terribly to save everyone from danger being disregarded and defamed.
This kind of Christian violence is not only political. It is not merely a top down consolidation of power by a Christian elite. It is an emotional and irrational force. Jewish and pagan proselytizing was punishable by death by the mid 400s. However before that it was necessary to pass laws stating that “Jews are not to be attacked or synagogues burnt, but they must not outrage Christianity.” and that “Synagogues (are) not to be pulled down or confiscated” though “New ones not to be built”. (Medieval Sourcebook: Legislation Affecting the Jews from 300 to 800 CE) This suggests that the government was following even trying to minimize public violence rather than creating it.
In addition to motivating religious persecution Christian theology tended to legitimize it much more than paganism had. After all if you are a creation of Yahweh what right do you have to worship or even consider other Gods? If you have been additionally purchased by Yahweh’s son what right do you have to offend him with temples or synagogues that deny his salvation? It would be much more than a thousand years before Christians would substantially say anything other than “no right at all” to these questions. Religious persecution in pre-Christian
was actually limited and aberrant. Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity considers it overstated. Motivated by the burden of untouched debt to Christ it eventually became the unquestioned norm. Rome
If any among them seek to introduce impious vanities, denying the resurrection or the judgment, or the work of God, or that angels are part of creation, we require them everywhere to be expelled forthwith; that no backslider raise his impious voice to contradict the evident purpose of God. Those who utter such sentiments shall be put to death, and thereby the Jewish people shall be purged of the errors which they introduced.
- Emporer Justinian 527-565 A.D.
It’s certainly not necessary to respond with violence to the catastrophic debt levels described by Christianity. Many people accept that they do not repay their creditors (God or parents or teachers) but instead pay it forward as best they can. This attitude, also founded on a sense of debt, can be found in the lives of many modern Christians. Volunteers at my local op shop, I’m thinking of you.
Similarly when plague killed a tenth of the Roman Empires civilization Christians tended to the sick and dying. They didn’t limit their service to their own and gave more care to pagans than the pagans own priests and leaders. We have received our concept of universal public health care from these people. We can guess they too were motivated by a theology of being owned by and owing God.
However many people have desired to pay God back for creation and for salvation. Those people have often viewed sacrifice in its literal and physical form. When sacrificing themselves becomes impossible I suggest that it’s a natural step to sacrificing others. There is nothing particularly unorthodox about their theology either. It is built on solid Judeo –Christian beliefs. These early martyrs are still taught as Christian heroes but it’s the martyrs you actually want to be afraid of.
*Christology is in my opinion a massively tiresome area of theology. I hope no-one minds if I keep my coverage of it simple. I find the hairsplitting between essence and substance and actuality and so on to be largely meaningless; basically most Christians declare Jesus is God.