You’re probably wondering about the title. A bit odd, yes. Well, today I got an email from a reader drawing a parallel I found fascinating. Here’s her email:
What I wanted to email about was the piece you wrote on the resurrection, July 26, 2011. The comments for this one are already closed, but I was struck by these words:
“The Roman Empire faced grave threats from barbarians on its borders, and the Roman leaders attributed their weakness to the fact that Christians, by now a growing percentage of the population, were refusing to honor the old Roman gods.”
In the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut I cannot tell you how many people I am acquainted with, especially my own parents, who emphatically claim this shooting was the result of the lack of Jesus in the shooter’s life and the lack of God, meaning the Christian version of it, in our culture at large. How eerily similar this sounds to what you wrote about the Romans.
“We’ve kicked God out of schools!”
“The world needs more Jesus.”
“Who knows how much violence has been averted because a potential killer or school shooter was led to Christ and had their soul transformed by the power of God. … We must get the gospel out. We must reach elementary children and their teachers. We must reach our neighbours and co-workers. We must reach friends and strangers. Because only the gospel can transform hate into love and a potential shooter into a child of God.”
And my favourite:
“If my people who are called by name will humble themselves and pray, then I will hear and heal their land.”
The message that I have heard every time one of this horrible events occurs, and what we will hear more of all over the country Sunday morning will be, if people would honour God, then these sorts of things would no longer happen. If only these unbelievers would worship the old gods our country would not be in the state it is now!
It’s very odd, and very sad when I realise the parallel.
She’s right, very very right.
I grew up hearing America’s “decline” compared to the decline of the Roman empire. The argument went that declining birth rates, the rise of homosexuality, and increasing luxury and decadence were present in the Roman Empire and brought about its collapse, and that our nation today is at risk of collapse due to these same forces (I should note that historians no longer accept this interpretation for the Roman Empire’s collapse). Religion, though, was something that was rarely mentioned when making this sort of comparison.
The greatest Roman persecutions of Christians occurred during times of great instability and threats from outside the borders. The leaders argued that these terrible things were happening because the country had turned from its foundation – its faith in its national gods. They therefore responded to the calamities by ordering everyone in the Roman Empire to sacrifice to the national gods in hope that they would return their favor to the empire and restore peace. When the Christians refused to sacrifice to the national gods, they were persecuted. In fact, the laws requiring everyone to make the sacrifices were passed in part in response to the growth in the Christian population, because it was primarily this growing group’s indifference to the national gods that was seen as the cause of the empire’s problems.
In the wake of the Connecticut shootings, many Christians are placing the blame on people’s lack of faith in God, on the increase of secularism in our countries and our schools, and on people’s increasing unwillingness to submit to God. Some are saying that this tragedy is God’s way of trying to cause people to repent for their depravity – a kind of punishment for people’s lack of devotion to God. These Christians are arguing that tragedies like this stem from us as a nation turning away from God.
Sound similar? It should.
I think the reason I never heard religion mentioned when comparing the decline of the Roman Empire and the (supposed) decline of the United States is that it erodes the particularity of Christianity. Whenever a nation faces challenges or violence, it’s a natural tendency for those of the majority religion, or the historically dominant religion, to blame these problems on the religious minority, or on religious change. Many Christians do this today in the exact same way that the Romans did it during the Crisis of the Third Century. And yet, during this troubled period in Roman history it was the decline in traditional Roman religion and the rise in Christianity that was blamed while today in the United States it is the decline of traditional Christianity and the rise in secularism that is blamed.
You know what? History can be seriously fascinating.