Christians in the Roman Empire and Christians in the American Empire
It has become fairly common for Christian scholars to compare the “Pax Romana” with a contemporary “Pax Americana”—both referring to far-flung influences of central cultures including military interventions and occupations. Many Christian scholars have also begun to compare Christians in the American empire to Christians in the ancient Roman Empire—both before and after its “conversion” to Christianity.
Lately I have been reading early post-New Testament Christian writers again. As much as I can from the so-called Didache and 1 Clement—probably the two earliest extra-canonical Christian writings—to Augustine in the fifth century (City of God). This time I am surprised by the loyalty and even patriotism expressed by many ancient Christians to the Roman Empire. There is a common but false impression among both Christians and non-Christians that ancient Roman Christians hated Rome—because they were persecuted by some of the emperors and their subordinates. Actually, that is a mistake.
True, some ancient Christian writers expressed harsh criticism toward the empire—especially for persecuting Christians who they argued were loyal subjects and citizens! The famous but anonymous Letter to Diognetus (mid- to late 2nd century) even goes so far as to say that Christians are to the empire what the soul is to the body! I think it is not entirely wrong to say that many of the ancient Christian writers of the Roman Empire (2nd through 5th centuries) were proud to be Roman citizens.
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At the same time, however, most of these ancient Roman Christian writers expressed strong reservations about Rome (not just the city itself but the empire). And not only because it misunderstood them and persecuted them. Echoing the New Testament itself they urged their Christian readers to be “in but not of” the empire. Clearly, however, until and except for the “Desert Fathers,” they were not advocating abandonment of the empire and certainly they were not advocating civil disobedience except with regard to idolatry. And then the civil disobedience was passive rather than aggressive.
An interesting point is that many of these ancient Christian writers, especially but not only Tertullian, saw idolatry everywhere—even hidden in common accoutrements of clothing. But there is no evidence that this strong admonition to avoid even the mere hint of association with idolatry meant hatred or disloyalty toward the empire itself.
Clearly, to my way of thinking, based on my reading of these ancient church fathers, ancient Christian attitudes toward the Roman Empire were ambivalent. Scholar of ancient Christianity and ancient Hellenistic culture Wayne Meeks spells it out very clearly in The Origins of Christian Morality (Yale University Press, 1993).
What about Christian attitudes towards the American empire today? Can we be proud to be American in spite of many things about America today with which we must disagree and which we must criticize if not condemn? I don’t see why not.
However, we must learn to do two things with which the ancient Christians of the Roman Empire struggled.
First, we must learn to draw a line between loyalty to and good citizenship of the empire (nation-state and its territories and commonwealths) and uncritical accommodation to its ways of life and its customs, habits and acceptance of all its treatments of others. Uncritical “Americanism,” nationalism, is tantamount to idolatry. America never was and never can be “God’s nation.” It was and to some extent still is influenced by Judeo-Christian perspectives and values, but, increasingly even those are disappearing from the public square. But it never was God’s messianic nation to the rest of the world—as many have dreamed and still do dream.
Second, we must learn to draw a line between true Christians and false Christians. All of the ancient church fathers searched for that line and found it in an implicit then explicit “rule of faith” (Irenaeus and Tertullian) and supreme loyalty to the way of Jesus Christ as different from the ways of “this world.” “Christians” who succumbed to the ways of this world such as materialism, greed, oppressing the poor and weak, militarism, idolatry and hatred were expelled from the church and when that could not be done (e.g., when they were emperors or their surrogates from Constantine on) they were harshly criticized from pulpits (Chrysostom and Ambrose) and even denied the sacrament of communion (eucharist).
Some years ago the World Communion of Reformed Churches declared apartheid in South Africa (but by implication anywhere) not only heresy but apostasy. The technical term for such a declaration by an ecclesiastical body is “status confessionis”—raising a doctrine to the status of necessary belief. One implication of this action was that one major church group in South Africa was considered not only no longer Reformed but no longer even Christian.
Today, I fear, the majority of American Christians are far too timid about saying “Those people [a specific group] who call themselves ‘Christians’ are not authentic Christians.” And yet, throughout Christian history this was common practice. As we all know, that sometimes led to extremes of persecution—especially when one church was supported by the state. However, even when Christians had no power to persecute anyone, in the past, they recognized a difference between authentic Christians and false Christians. Some churches included both; others, called “believer churches,” sought to permit only authentic Christians into membership.
One of our supreme values and virtues in contemporary American society is tolerance and “tolerance” is often thought to include acceptance and inclusion of everyone. This attitude of tolerance has filtered into Christian circles. When I, in my role as a Christian theologian, say of any group “They are not authentic Christians” I get a negative reaction. “That’s awfully judgmental of you” and “Who are you to judge?”—especially if the people I’m saying are not authentically Christian are “nice” or influential in a “good way” (e.g., politically).
Obviously the church fathers of the second and third centuries faced this as well or else they wouldn’t have had to write so much to convince even fellow true, authentic Christians that, say Valentinus or Marcion, were not true Christians.
We are too timid about this; it is time to say of some even highly regarded leaders who claim to be Christian: “They’re not real Christians.”
We need to follow the example of the World Communion of Reformed Churches—occasionally.
I’ll finish with one more example. I remember seeing this on (I think it was) CNN years ago. A group of military officers closely allied with the dictatorship of a South American country visited New York City. Their visit had something to do with the United Nations. At that it was well-known around the world that thousands of dissidents within that country were being “disappeared”—some even take out over the ocean in helicopters and dropped into it. Others were being tortured and secretly buried. Thousands of parents, children and siblings had no idea what happened to their loved ones. And they were not guilty of anything except publicly criticizing the regime (which we, the U.S., helped take over the country).
When this small group (approximately five) “colonels” from South America, all nominal Catholics, attended mass at a Catholic church in NYC the priest refused to give them the eucharist. They were publicly humiliated and sent away. The priest was simply doing what Ambrose, archbishop of Milan, did in the fifth century when the emperor, who claimed to be a Christian, ordered the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people in a rebellious city. Ambrose let it be known that the emperor would not be given communion until he publicly repented. The emperor did that—in “sackcloth and ashes”—in the cathedral in Milan.
As I see it, anyway, we American Christians (who are not fundamentalists or cultists) are far, far too timid about saying publicly about certain people who claim to be Christians “No, they are not.” In case you need an example, I will say here and now that anyone who says he has never needed to repent cannot be a Christian. That, in and of itself, should be obvious. Unfortunately, even some fundamentalist Christians let that slide by.
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