Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.
Pope Leo X, The Claims of Christianity (1891), allegedly
We’ve been talking lately about the origins of Christianity and how it retains power even today. There’s one truth above all others, as far as I can see it, regarding this religion:
Without Coercion, Christianity Would Never Have Gotten Big.
There’s a popular narrative among Christians regarding the origins of their religion: that it was such a wonderful, humanity-affirming new faith that it attracted the poor and downtrodden all over the Western world, who converted in such numbers from the very beginning that eventually this radical new faith supplanted all the other existing religions and was adopted by rulers themselves–after a period of persecution, that is–ushering in a glorious Golden Age of Christian flowering.
This narrative is completely, totally false.
It’s a self-serving deception peddled by piously-fraudulent leaders who really ought to know better to flocks who won’t have the faintest idea that what they’re being taught isn’t the real truth of the matter, nor will even have the means by which to assess these claims. Here’s the truth of it–the truth those leaders would really rather nobody know.
First, Christianity wasn’t really very new or radical.
Everything in it was pretty much a rehash of other religions. It contained a base of Judaism, a goodly dose of pagan philosophy, and a jigger of mystery-religion mysticism, all whizzed together in the heady atmosphere of Jewish outrage over the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. It simply didn’t say anything that some other religion at the time wasn’t saying as well or better.
(That’s exactly why most Jews at the time didn’t take it seriously–and thus likely did not turn out in their many thousands to Jesus’ rock-star arrival in Jerusalem, nor to his trial at the hands of Romans, nor to his humiliating execution. It’s very unlikely that they would have considered his death an event that everyone in Jerusalem would know about, as the myths about him falsely attest. If he existed, which is a big if in my eyes, he was irrelevant to Jerusalem’s residents.)
Second, Christianity didn’t really exist before Paul began writing.
It would have genuinely alarmed me, back when I was Christian, to know just how much of Christianity owes its existence and form to Paul. Incidentally, as many quibbles as we might make about the existence of Jesus, Paul’s existence seems to be facing exactly those same quibbles. (A few people don’t think he existed at all and was fabricated out of whole cloth. Their arguments are quite compelling-sounding.) At least we can be sure that the same person wrote many of the things we attribute to Paul, so I’ll follow convention in calling that person Paul.
Regardless, Christianity didn’t get rolling until this mystery evangelist began writing. There’s no evidence of its existence at all until then. The idea of Jesus sparking a huge revolution before dying, a revolution that only amassed more power and ferocity in the wake of his death and apparent resurrection, is a fabrication too.
Even then, the religion did not attract many people at all–no more than any other fringe cult might even in our own time. As Lambchop’s pointed out, even in the Pauline letters, the author chides his adherents about how poorly they were retaining
customers believers. The historian Richard Carrier estimates that Christianity won over a vanishing small percentage of people, less than 1% of the population at the time. He compared it very unfavorably to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, which totally bowled over the Western world and gained a near-universal, near-instant acceptance from pretty much everyone in society:
In the end, [Christianity] could only gain that scale of success after numerous centuries, and even then by force and intimidation.
Which brings us to our next point of fact:
Coercion–not a popular uprising of faith–formed the basis of the religion’s power almost from the very beginning.
Christianity got a big push initially because the wealthy adopted it, as we see in Acts, when Ananias and Sapphira were divinely murdered because they hadn’t given a promised large monetary donation to the Apostle Peter–if they’d been just a pair of poor slaves, I doubt Peter would have been as upset. The wealthy people of Paul’s day likely adopted it because it was such a great form of control. Indeed, the “miraculous” deaths of these two prominent adherents caused “a great fear” “upon as many as heard these things” (Acts 5:11). Though there’s no reason to think that this story happened any more than anything else in the New Testament (or Old for that matter) did, the fact that the story got created and included in the religion’s eventual canon speaks to how popular and effective it was.
Hell, elsewhere, Jesus tells a parable about a banquet held by a rich man that all the invitees ghost on; faced with an empty table, he tells his servants to invite everyone they can, even those who are too lowly to be considered for the guest list for such a feast, but still the table is too empty. He finally tells them to go outside to “compel [people] to come in.” And they do this. Notably, Jesus never once says that it is wrong to compel people. He’s all for the idea–as long as it benefits him.
So much for that Bible verse saying “perfect love casts out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love,” huh? Well, that only counts when people don’t owe Peter money or don’t want to attend Jesus’ party. When it comes to such important matters, fear has always been a perfectly acceptable and effective means of control–one which the leaders of the religion were only too happy to employ. They’d have needed it, too: Richard Carrier recounts in that essay I linked how Pliny the Younger, in 112 CE or so, ran across great numbers of people who’d been Christians at one point but had stopped practicing it years ago. The ones who hadn’t already stopped did so once he threatened to execute them for their adherence, moreover; they certainly were not in a rush to martyr themselves, and they were so few to begin with that he had literally no idea how to prosecute them, nor did he even know enough about the religion to know exactly why his master, Emperor Trajan, had declared it illegal in the first place.
Beyond that very earthly fear-based marketing, Hell itself–as a doctrine of eternal, brutal, inescapable punishment for a finite lifetime of quite-possibly innocent mistakes of ignorance–became ever-more ghastly and cruel as time went on, simply because it was such an effective marketing tool that evangelists couldn’t ignore its potential. Add to its existing marketing around a god who could work miracles and grant miracle-working power to his most fervent adherents, and a promise of an afterlife that would reward followers for their obedience and submission, and Christianity had a potent arsenal.
But even with these tools, even with that potent arsenal of marketing features, Christianity simply couldn’t gain dominance–because it only had minor coercive powers.
Richard Carrier paints a picture of a disgruntled lower-, artisan-, and middle-class adopting the religion as a reflection of their own values, but points out that until Christianity could offer the elites positions of power and wealth, which didn’t happen for a couple of hundred years, they didn’t gravitate to it. (One very early strategy that paid off inestimably well was that of converting women to the religion; fed on false promises of equality under Christ and a future life of security and comfort in Heaven, women eagerly accepted this new religion, and then influenced their children and husbands toward belief. It was a brilliant move, one that all but guaranteed that there’d be some number of Christians in the future. Other cults that only targeted men would have a tougher time finding a foothold.)
The very people who could best validate the religion’s claims of legitimacy were the people who sniffed down their noses at it. The Bible itself paints a portrait of middle-upper-class people adopting the religion (the wife of Pontius Pilate; Ananias and Sapphira; Joseph of Arimathea), but we don’t hear about rulers adopting it. Even after a few centuries of hardcore evangelism and individual-based coercion, Christianity hadn’t managed to convert more than about 25% of the population of the Roman Empire.
Nothing changed as the religion began taking its initial shape, either. But that would change radically. In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, recognizing it as one of the authorized religions allowed to practice in the empire. That move opened the door to elite ownership of the religion. By 325, those leaders formed the First Council of Nicea, which tried to consolidate a lot of conflicting beliefs and prune away the ones they didn’t agree with–beginning the concept of one proper TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, itself responsible for infighting and squabbling all the way to today. And in 392 CE, Christianity was declared the only legal religion of the Empire, with others being outlawed, their believers declared “demented and insane” and slated to be “smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative.” (Emphases mine.)
Now, suddenly, Christian leaders had the power to force people to convert under the most striking duress, and the power to destroy infidels who disagreed with their conclusions about what Jesus totally wanted everyone to do.
And if you don’t think they grabbed that opportunity with both hands and exploited it to Kingdom come, then you’re one sweet summer child.
There is only one thing that mattered to the people who helmed the religion, and that is power. Their system was broken: it was based on a false premise (that Jesus was real and influenced his followers to do what was moral and just), so it couldn’t help but be broken. It had no provisions for figuring out what the real truth was, nor for correctly weighing the claims made by any adherent of the religion. It had no way to protect the underclass from its ruling overclass, nor for ensuring that the overclass’ decisions were the best possible, nor to rein in anybody who was categorically wrong about something.
But it did now have the tools it needed to finally reach for what its leaders had wanted all along: dominance.
The Age of Coercion.
Christian missionaries radiated out from Rome to all corners of the Earth–and when they reached a new country, they went straight to the courts of the powerful rulers of those nations. Often those rulers already had some brush with the religion–either through marriage to Christian brides, as King Ethelbert of Kent had, or else through a priest installed in their own households, or both (since the queens often brought a household priest along with them to their new homes)–and once convinced of the religion’s claims and made to see the benefits of conversion, they immediately forced their subjects to convert as well, and when waging war they forced the conquered people they defeated to accept the religion at the point of the sword.
Christians who know about this history of forced conversion often sound very uncomfortable with it–as a writer for Christianity Today acknowledges, conceding that “the conversion of much of Europe and of Latin America is unimaginable without the sword,” adding that coercion became a tool of choice for rulers and priests very quickly after Constantine’s approval. Christianity became a thing of the ruling elite, who spread the religion among their subjects–and who could cause suffering for their entire country if they annoyed the religious leaders of their day enough.
Once converted, various forms of coercion were used to keep people Christian. That’d been the main force lacking in the religion’s earliest centuries, as Pliny had discovered; there was no way to compel people to remain in the yoke if they wanted to leave, or to punish those who left to the point where everyone feared the idea of leaving too much to do it. The Church gradually acquired the ability to punish individuals for dissenting and disobeying–sometimes brutally and viciously and often fatally. Excommunication was used in cases where someone had broken the rules entirely too much; such a person was considered to be totally cut off from “God’s” mercy and could no longer participate in Christian rites such as communion. (The Catholic Church uses this tool even today to keep believers in line; though this might change in the future, the list for excommunication includes people who remarry after divorce, which means my very own mother died an excommunicated Catholic. Predictably, Pope Francis’ reason for easing that rule is that Christian parents–meaning mothers particularly–raise Christian children. Some things don’t ever change!)
The interdict was a powerful tool employed in extreme situations; once laid upon a country, all essential Christian services were suspended, which meant believers went unshriven, unburied, unmarried, unbaptized, and un-almost-everything-else that a priest normally did to usher a person through their various life stages (the exact list of suspended services varied). It essentially was a temporary excommunication of the whole country–regardless of how well-behaved the people in it were aside from that ruler. That’s because the Christian leaders of the time knew where their bread was buttered. They wanted the obedience of the rulers, because they knew the rulers would force their people to believe as they did, and that the rulers had the power to enforce their will. Why work one’s ass off to convert thousands of people on an individual basis when one can target just one person who’ll then take on the task of converting everyone else?
If a population was convinced enough that they actually needed these services, the interdict was usually enough to bring around the ruler to the “right” way of doing things.
These forms of coercion weren’t even the only forms of it available. The Church had a stranglehold on the study of science and history as well, since there was no other reason to study these topics aside from curiosity. They did not permit laypeople to even read the Bible itself in their own native languages and did little to encourage universal education, so in these ways controlled both religious and secular knowledge. If people don’t even know where their leaders are getting their ideas and have no other education aside from the second-hand information they receive, it’s a lot harder to contest those ideas.
When we regard early Christian history, we simply cannot see it in any other light than as an exercise in how a world religion came to unimaginable power and dominance–and how it jealously guarded that power and dominance over the centuries, amassed even more of it, and enjoyed unparalleled privilege and prestige as a result of it. As uncomfortable as Christians today may be with the idea of institutionalized coercion, they certainly don’t mind having benefited from it–and they definitely don’t mind trying to regain that former state of dominance.
But change was a-coming for the religion. The Golden Age of Christian Coercion couldn’t last forever.
Yes, we’ll be looking at the upheavals that spelled the end of that dominance next time–see you then!
I seriously can’t get enough of Trevor Moore’s “Pope Rap”: