In his Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells us that some seed being sown fell on rocky places. Later he explains the meaning of this: 20 The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away (Matthew 13:20-21, New American Standard Version).
1. State persecution and Church response
In his book, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956), English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) rightly applies Christ’s Parable of the Sower to the relationship between the Christian Church and the Roman State. Speaking of the seed sown on rocky places, Toynbee praises the Church’s response to persecution during Roman times (AD 63-313) with these words:
Of all the challenges that are encountered by the sower of the seed, the challenge of persecution is the one to which the followers of the higher religions [Christianity and Buddhism] have succeeded in responding with the greatest measure of success. Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who do fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.
The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahayana [Buddhists] by the Chinese Empire [of] the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast…in standing a more severe ordeal (92).
There are two details here which would be helpful for us to note. One, violent persecution by the State is part of our history as Church. Two, in Roman times, an inspiring number of Christians chose to respond to persecution with courage rather than compromise.
2. Reason for State persecution
On the Christian side, there was an intuition that Man-worship in its oecumenical collective form was the most imposing, attractive, and specious idolatry still in the field, and that therefore the Christian was called upon to show the utmost stalwartness and intransigence in resisting it (94).
Toynbee believed that we humans worship ourselves by making idols of our political communities. He said that our most impressive, seductive, and deceptive political idols are empires.
Let us agree with Toynbee that self-centeredness is certainly an important element in current human devotion to false gods. Let us add, though, that self-centeredness is not the only or even most important element in that devotion. When we worship our empire, we are really worshiping Jupiter: god of politics and one of the six conventional but false and destructive gods of Olympianity.
3. Pressing the question of idolatry
It was…the common view of the two parties [Church and State] that a point of principle, and this one of capital importance, was at stake in the question whether the Christians should or should not acknowledge the divinity of Rome and of Caesar. Therefore, in the last resort, the Roman magistrate was bound to pass sentence of death on any Christian who refused to make this acknowledgement by performing a symbolic outward visible act of worship. The magistrate’s usual tactics were to press the prisoner to clear himself by performing the rite, on the ground that this was only a formality; and it was there that the magistrate was not on solid ground. For, if the rite was really no more than a formality after all, why should not the State waive its demand for the performance of it, instead of insisting on punishing a refusal with death?...Would-be martyrs insisted on forcing the issue and deliberately made it impossible for the magistrate to avoid imposing the death penalty (103).
From the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in AD 30, the Roman State declared the Christian Church illegal. This illegality provided the legal foundation for the sporadic persecution of the Christian Church until 313 when the Roman State acknowledged its defeat by the Church by declaring it legal.
The Roman State persisted in this negative policy because it thought of Christians as atheists. Roman Olympians believed in the six conventional gods of Olympianity as well as others. They were even willing to add Jesus to their pantheon. Christians insisted that Yahweh was the only god and there were no others at all, anywhere, ever.
In response to this uncompromising, illiberal, unprogressive attitude, the Roman State occasionally demanded that Christians either perform some small public act of devotion to the Olympian gods or die. Churches didn’t pick this fight. They didn’t walk away from it either. They didn’t allow representatives of the Roman State to pretend that any act of devotion to the Olympian gods, no matter how small, was simply a formality. No. In truth it was a public repudiation of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man. Sorry.
Today, are our churches prepared to discern with such clarity the idolatrous claims of our own empire? If our empire chose to pick a fight with us for rejecting its claims, would we be prepared to act with the steadfastness and courage we once did?
Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.