Those Troublesome Christians

By Dan Clendenin

This week my wife and I will travel to Italy to walk the 330-mile Way of Saint Francis. This will be our third pilgrimage. In 2012, we walked the 493-mile Way of St. James in northern Spain. In 2014, we did the 458-mile pilgrimage across southern France called Le Chemin du Puy.

Our version of the Via Francigena will begin in Florence, curl around clockwise to Assisi, then continue in a backwards “C” to Rome. In Rome, if the line isn’t too long and the sun isn’t too hot, we hope to walk through the Vatican “doors of mercy.”

Back on December 8, 2015, Pope Francis declared an “extraordinary” jubilee Year of Mercy. At about the same time, he released his new book called The Name of God is Mercy.

After a two-hour mass, Francis began the Year of Mercy with a symbolic ritual — knocking on the massive bronze doors of the Basilica of St. Peter, and then walking through them. Whereas the doors are usually sealed, this jubilee year the Vatican expects about 10 million pilgrims to walk through those same doors.

The symbolic significance? “I am the door,” said Jesus in John 10:7. And so Francis prayed, “You are the door through which we come to thee, inexhaustible source of consolation for everyone.”

“To pass through the Holy Door,” said Pope Francis in his homily, “means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.” Indeed, that is our own pilgrimage prayer.

To prepare for our walk, I read the new book by Mary Beard, SPQR; A History of Ancient Rome (2015). The title of the book comes from the “shorthand slogan” Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome.”

This acronym was a sort of “civic graffiti” plastered all over Rome (manhole covers, garbage bins, etc.), and identified the two components of political power in Roman history — the Senate and the Roman people, and, by extension, the perpetual tension between dictatorship and democracy.

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Rome’s Circus Maximus (Google Earth reconstruction), a stadium for chariot racing that held 150,000 people, c. 100 BCE.

SPQR tells how a little town by the Tiber River grew into a global super power of 50 million people. Western civilization has various roots, observes Beard, but “since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.”

As for religion, Rome was intensely polytheistic: “the range of deities worshiped was proudly elastic.” The more gods, the merrier. “The basic rule was that as the Roman Empire expanded, so did its pantheon of deities.”

There was one glaring exception to this historical rule — “the troublesome Christians.” According to Beard, there was an “irreconcilable clash” between early Christianity and ancient Rome.

Christians were “far worse” than the Jews, says Beard. The monotheistic Christians rejected the polytheistic gods that Rome counted on for success. Unlike Judaism, Christianity had no geographic ancestry or historical pedigree. It demanded conversion.

Christianity also preached a comprehensive message “that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it.”

For about a hundred years, the emergent movement was invisible to most people in the Roman empire. But across the decades Christians earned a reputation as an alternate and anti-social community that existed on the margins of the Republic — the res publica or “the public thing.”

Christians were considered fanatical, seditious, obstinate, and defiant. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus, who died in 117 CE, called them “haters of mankind.” They scorned long-held Roman religious traditions. Many of their adherents came from the lower classes and seemed gullible. They refused military service, and met for clandestine rites rumored to include cannibalism, ritual murder, and incest.

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Rome’s Colosseum, 80 CE.

All of which is to say, in the words of one critic, that the Christians “did not understand their civic duty.” They undermined Roman society with their indifference to civic affairs.

The epistle this week shows how and why. Today we rightly remember Rome for some genuinely “democratic” ideals, like shared power, limited terms of office, and election by popular vote. But there were limits. These privileges were mainly for men. Slaves, women, and the poor had significantly fewer rights. So, in many other ways, Rome was also very much a meritocracy.

Into this mix comes Paul, traveling some 10,000 miles around the Roman empire, preaching a subversive message like Galatians 3:28 that levels all our hierarchies: “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This verse is repeated verbatim in Colossians 3:11.

The gospel this week illustrates this message of mercy and inclusion. A nameless man had been exiled to the margins of human existence. He was filthy naked in public. He couldn’t control his speech. He was so violent that people couldn’t come near him. All attempts to restrain him had failed. He exhibited the most common form of self-harm even today — self-mutilation. The etiology of the day added it all up and said that demons possessed him.

“My name is Legion!” this homeless man screamed, “for we are many.” Tortured in body, mind, and spirit, he embodied the gamut of human suffering, for a Roman “legion” consisted of 5,000 soldiers.

And so his community did what we still do today. They banished the man to the safe and solitary margins of society.

The story is so disturbing that Matthew’s condensed version doesn’t even mention that Jesus healed the man. Rather, all three synoptic gospels focus on the people’s fear of Jesus and their anger at their economic loss. When they saw this derelict man completely healed, and the drowned pigs, “all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.”

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Rome’s Forum, c. 200 CE.

Extending mercy to all without exception, especially to those who need it most, can threaten, frighten, and anger people.

Christian mercy that honors and embraces everyone is the antithesis of the Roman hierarchy of wealthy men that marginalized slaves, women, and the poor. The way of mercy is the opposite of a system of meritocracy — earning your way by privilege, money, status, ethnicity, family, education, and on and on.

Mercy for everyone is the message of Jesus. Be merciful, said Jesus, even as your heavenly Father is merciful. Radical equality before a merciful Father is what Paul preached.

“You cannot conceive of a true Christian who is not merciful,” said Pope Francis in his homily back in December, “just as you cannot conceive of God without his mercy. Mercy is the key word of the Gospel. . . We should not be afraid: We should allow ourselves to be embraced by the mercy of God, who waits for us and forgives everything.”

Note: In addition to Beard, see Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian; How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), 206pp. And Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale, 1984; second edition, 2003), 214pp.

Image credits: (1) CircusMaximus.us; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) Wikipedia.org.

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