The Newton Shooting and the Roman Empire

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.”

And this:

“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.

Notice anything familiar there?

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.

A Letter from Hell, and Self-Reinforcing Beliefs
A Matter of Patriarchy
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
Andrée Seu Peterson's Appalling Column on Bisexuality
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thank you for highlighting that the fundamentalist Christians of America seem to more closely resemble the Romans who persecuted the earliest Christians, than the early Christians themselves!

    I’ve shared some thoughts about this on my blog over the past day or so. The latest post on the topic looks at a slogan on a t-shirt that mirrors the sentiment you discuss here. I think it says a lot about what today’s fundamentalist Christians in the United States actually worship: power, and symbols of power, much as the Romans did.

    • JB

      To the atheists AND Theists who have rushed to make points off of all this.

      You are all scum.

      May none of you ever have political power over me.

      A Pox On Both Your Houses.

      • jose

        You’re right, let’s shut up and do nothing instead. Surely that’s the best for future potential victims.

      • Chris Algoo
      • Petticoat Philosopher

        It’s “plague” not “pox.” If you’re going to flame somebody with a Shakespeare quote, at least get it right. Sheesh.

        And she is not making a point “all of this”–although I see nothing wrong wanting to take a constructive approach to a terrible thing. She is critiquing a particular reaction to “all of this” that she, and many others, find offensive and counterproductive. How using an atrocity as an excuse to proselytize the same thing as criticizing people for doing that? False equivalency much?

  • Joss

    Well, it’s not far fro militant atheists believing that religion is the root of all evil. Maybe they doesn’t consider Stalin or Pol Pot as bad people.

    • Kate

      You are going to have to do better than that.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I really don’t see how the flaws in the ideology of hard-line New Atheists have anything to do with this topic at all. They’re not the ones committing the offense here, fundamentalist Christians are. When hard-line atheists fill up social networking websites with asinine, offensive things (it’s happened before, sure), I’m sure many here will be happy to take them to task. But that’s not what’s going on right now.

  • Rob F

    God is very much “in schools”. If you are Christian (or any other theistic religion) you are perfectly able and completely allowed to pray in school.. Thousands if not millions of American children do that every school day.

    But what you cannot do is force everyone else to go along and pray with you. If you’re having a test, then you can pray for thirty seconds before you start writing. You do that on your own time. What you cannot do is make everyone else or a captive audience say the same prayers you do. Being allowed to do something yourself is not the same as forcing everyone else to do it with you. The only way to stop someone (including you) from being forced to say a prayer against their religion is to keep prayer individual, away from teacher leadership or school endorsement. You aren’t forced to pray to someone else’s god, and likewise no one is forced to pray to yours.

    And it was Christians who brought this about. Quoting NLQ:

    During that season [of radio shows] I also learned we’d [me and my family] been lied to. Contrary to the jeremiads of the Christian Right’s propaganda industry, it wasn’t “America’s godless, secular intelligentsia” who had removed the Bible and the knowledge of God from our educational system. In reality, Christians themselves had caused it nearly 200 years ago. By the 1820s, America’s public schools were in a dilemma. Calvinists wanted the schools to teach only Calvinism, but Arminians (mostly Methodists) wanted them to teach only their doctrines. Several other sects were making demands of their own. And all of them agreed that no matter which version of Christianity won out in the classrooms, it should never be Roman Catholicism, which they all abhorred with equal passion. The endless infighting overwhelmed school authorities, who eventually gave up on the teaching of religion, substituting a vague, generic moral science in its place.

    • Rob F

      To clarify, that wasn’t intended as a response to Libby Anne, but rather to the people she quotes etc (like Hovind).

  • AnneCME

    After seeing too many similar posts on my Facebook feed, I posted this, “I’m horrified by those who say we deserve this tragedy because we don’t have God in our schools. First, God is everywhere equally present. Second, dear Christian friends, you have brothers and sisters in Christ teaching and learning and praying in public schools. At lunch every Friday, I hear songs of praise from the classroom next door and Clinton signed into law allowing people in public schools the right to read their Bibles and pray. Third, Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world, right? Stop being Pharisees and walk like Jesus.”

  • Lana

    No way? you were taught that the roman empire fell because of homosexuality, etc, too? hehe

  • Niemand

    So where was god when the shooting happened? If god is all powerful and good, why didn’t he stop the shooter? Why not make the guns malfunction or change the shooter’s mind or miraculously teleport the children to safety? I’d have done any of those things, if I could, without demanding that anyone worship me. Why worship a god that can’t even be bothered to save the lives of 20 innocent children and 6 heroic teachers?

    • Hubert Den Draak

      God did not allow this to happen – we did. We as a society that thinks it’s normal to “resolve” our conflicts through violence. And guns. and more violence and more guns. It has become the norm, and then we’re surprised it leads to these results and wonder why this happened and blame god for it.
      God was there, yes, but not as some almighty super-being who controls everything from a distance and intervenes when he feels like it. I believe God is there, weeping with the victims, holding those who are numb with grief; God is present in the heroes big and small who appeared during the carnage and in the aftermath, God is present all in who reach out and try to help. God is there, trying to make us see that things can be so much better than this.
      Let us never confuse the results of our own short-sighted choices for the will of God.

      • Kodie

        Well you’re half right. Are you saying god is there, with his thumb up his butt basically, so you and me and we can all get a message about how he’d like us to change? How is that nice?

        I mean, he could have us just be compassionate. In drastic cases like this we eventually get over the shock and fall back into our complacent routines, and maybe let someone else do the work.

    • pagansister

      WOW! I so totally agree with what you wrote, Niemand. Where was the Almighty when that man broke into the school and shot and killed all those beautiful children…one found with 11 bullet holes in her—and their caregivers? I have no way of knowing of course, but I would suspect the shooter was given a religious upbringing. That didn’t seem to make a difference— If that god so many worship had any control at all (forget the so called “free will” he/she was supposed to have allowed us to have) he/she would never allow horrible events—there would be no wars –religious or other wise.

  • lucrezaborgia

    Christians never do anything bad and if they do, that is proof that they were never Christian


  • Rae

    I remember hearing that “If my people who are called by my name…” verse after every. single. tragedy or natural disaster happening in the US that I was old enough to remember. Columbine, 9/11, Katrina, VA Tech, and so on, but especially 9/11.

  • Basketcase

    This has just started appearing in my facebook feed (multiple times in the last 20 minutes)… Thought it might be relevant to your discussions Libby-Anne. I agree gun laws need to be looked at, and the tendency of the Christian Right to blame godlessness is bollocks, but this is the part I’m not seeing a lot of conversation about.

    • Anat

      Kate Donovan, on Ashley Miller’s blog, has 2 posts about mental health and the shooting:

      You are Not His Mother which answers what appears to be the same facebook article

      And: When You Tie Shootings to Mental Illness

      We don’t know a thing about Lanza’s mental state. Let’s not make it harder for people with mental health problems to get help. And let’s not pretend that as long as we know who the mentally ill are we are safe (and can have as many guns as we feel like with no risk).

  • Gigi

    I am brokenhearted and these type of reactions seem so callous. When there were threats at my school growing up, I thought of it as normal. It was a “well, what can you do?” attitude. Religiousness or the lack of it didn’t build that culture. I hope we as a people can prevent these things from happening; reactions that blame decent (but not “God fearing”) people for this tragedy must be spoken out agaist for their inherent pridefulness, demonization, and general tone deafness. These comments are the same as blaming gay people for tornadoes or legal abortion for high crime rates; this brand of rhetoric is not helpful, but actively alienating and counter-productive to national healing.

  • heartbroken believer

    i am truly sorry for all of the foolish things being said in the name of faith
    (or the lack of faith for that matter)
    my God is as broken-hearted over this as we are.
    the blame is not religion,the lack of religion or even mental illness
    -the blame is the murderer himself.

  • Tim

    In such an alarming situation America is facing with this shooting . I m very surprised that many Atheist pro choice advocate could even act concerned seeing they have fought for about 3500 babies slaughtered a day in this country and only 1percent has to do with rape . Call the kettle black I say . Hypocrites

    • Malitia

      Just a thought, but if what your worldview implies about people doesn’t correspond with their real actions that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are hypocrites / dishonest, there is also the distinct possibility that your understanding of them is faulty. Concluding their hypocrisy when for them it’s clear as day that you don’t understand their stance only paints you as… well… self-righteous and stupid. (Or a troll.)

    • M

      I’ll feed the troll, why not. I’m bored. So here goes:

      1) You’re conflating atheists and pro-choice people. Granted, most atheists are pro-choice, but being pro-choice is definitely not part of disbelieving in gods and there are many theist pro-choice advocates. Is it the atheism or the pro-choice advocacy you’re more upset about? You should really get your labels straight before sticking your foot in your mouth.

      2) I will only speak for myself in this. I do not think zygotes or embryos or fetuses are people. You don’t get person status until you are born and detached from the woman you were drawing blood, glucose, oxygen, and protein from. So OF COURSE the murder of children is upsetting, while abortion is not- one is killing people, and the other is not.

      3) Given that I don’t think any woman should be forced to be pregnant or give birth when she doesn’t want to, why would it matter to me how the zygote/embryo/fetus was conceived? You’re the one who seems to think that only some “babies” are worth saving, based on whether their mothers were sexually pure or not, and that non-raped women must be punished by having unwanted children. That’s a sick, twisted way to look at both women and children. Either all zygotes/embryos/fetuses are people, in which case you shouldn’t want them to be aborted no matter what, or they aren’t people, in which case your whole argument falls apart. Which is it?

    • Anat

      A fetus which exists by utilizing a woman’s body is not a baby. If the woman does not wish to continue being pregnant it is her choice to terminate the pregnancy. If the fetus can’t survive without the woman’s work then it doesn’t. If the pregnancy is far enough along induction of birth can be a method of ending the pregnancy.

      The children who were killed were so different from fetuses: They were self-aware people, with social bonds, with wishes of their own, with ability to formulate plans for their own future. They understood what it meant for them to die.

  • Picmaillion

    You ca approach this like Christ taught: turn your other cheek and forgive (lile the Amish could); but Christ also rejected the use of arms. So all arms out of America. (maybe a police and military force exempted)
    You can also approach this as christians and butcher everybody who doesn’t think the way you want him to:
    Crusades, massacare of the Cathares (south of France), prosecutions of the protestants, witch-hunts. All ordered by the deputy of Christ the holy pope in Rome. Or like Bush did after 9/11: a crusade in the middle east.
    The murders of the children are unbelievable, unthinkable and disgusting, but also a direct consequence of how we built our society .