A reader who is a PhD student in Biblical studies writes:
In light of the recent religious liberty stuff, I thought you might be interested in a couple of things I read this morning on early Christians’ clash with public worship of the emperor. The quotes are from Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). The book is about the various facets of Roman culture that were causing so many problems in the Corinthian church, particularly for the wealthy and influential minority who were struggling to break with their pagan worldview. The more I learn about Roman Corinth, the more I’m amazed by how similar it sounds to our post-modern, pluralistic, wealth-celebrity-sports–obsessed society.
Anyways, in a chapter on Paul’s instructions about eating meat in a pagan temple (which he argus is likely related to the imperial cult; 1 Cor 8–10), Winter quotes someone else, on the imperial cult in Anatolia (=Asia Minor or modern Turkey) at this time:
“One cannot avoid the impression that the obstacle which stood in the way of the progress of Christianity, and the force which would have drawn new adherents back to conformity with the prevailing paganism, was the public worship of the emperors…it was not a change of heart that might win a Christian convert back to paganism, but the overwhelming pressure to conform imposed by the institutions of his city and the activities of his neighbors” (p. 284, quoting Stephen Mitchell, The Rise of the Church [vol. II of Anatolia; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993], p. 10, emph. mine).
>Winter talks about how the yearly veneration of the emperor and his family was celebrated very, very publicly, with everyone expected to wear special clothing and even to decorate their front doors in a certain way.
Winter goes on to talk about Tertullian’s second-century discussion of this issue (in his Apology, chs. 10, 31):
“Tertullian agreed that while Christians participated in civic life, they did not worship gods or ‘offer sacrifices for the emperors,’ only prayers (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2), even though this resulted in accusations of sacrilege and treason. He records that the Christians as loyal citizens prayed for the peace and stability of the empire in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:1, and referred to the emperor as ‘Lord’ but not Lord in God’s place. However, they were counted as ‘public enemies.’” (p. 285, emph. mine).
Sounds familiar, eh? Christians can’t ultimately remain “private” worshippers of Jesus, then or now, and so become “public enemies” when they necessarily refuse to worship the gods of Rome or America.
I keep hearing from various Christian friends that the contemporary church is going to have to start studying the lives and practices of the early church Christians to know how to thrive in the emerging post-Christian cultural reality. Thoughts on this, readers?
UPDATE: Reader Irenist has a great comment:
Whether we’re being “persecuted” is a red herring. What matters is just that the secular West is walking farther and farther away from what we consider to be ways of life conducive to human flourishing. Thus, even if we’re not being “forced” to do anything akin to worshipping Caesar, those of us interested in rigorous adherence to older ways are going to be more isolated as time goes on.
So, yes, let’s look at groups like Orthodox Jews, traditionalist Muslims, vegetarian followers of Dharmic religions, etc., have managed to follow their consciences in an America where their taboos (I use the word non-pejoratively and admittedly inexactly merely because it is brief) are not mainstream. And closer to home, let’s look at how Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Amish, and Mennonites have managed to honor their taboos in an America very different than their ways, too. Lastly, let’s look at how monastics manage to preserve their isolation, how mendicants and friars and Jesuits and nuns outside convents manage (or don’t, in some post-Vatican II tragedies) to honor their vows and yet walkabout in the secular City of Man, and look, too, at how members of sodalities like Opus Dei or the various tertiary orders manage similar challenges. Heck, let’s look at how the Eastern Orthodox cope in a world where few of their neighbors are rigorously fasting when they are, or staying up all night before work in a prayer vigil, or celebrating their major holidays on the same dates. Heck, we might even want to see if gay couples in conservative towns, or neopagans surrounded by Christians, have any tips to offer on how to fit in when the rest of the world not only isn’t like you, but doesn’t approve very much.
In sum, we’re going to have to learn how to be weirdos amidst our WEIRD compatriots, whether we’re persecuted or not. Heck, frank persecution would probably produce an esprit de corps that would help our kids stay Christian out of sheer familial patriotism–like all the Irish Catholic rakes over the centuries who stayed nominally Catholic just to stick it to the English. The stick of persecution can be a goad to rigorous discipleship. Contrariwise, the alluring carrot of modern liberty–with all its many temptations and enticements and opportunities for self-righteously being on the “right” side of history–has proven a far greater threat in the example of Ireland, and in MTD, agnosticism, atheism, and relgious indifference throughout the West.
The key question the various groups I’ve mentioned have had to answer is how to keep the kids “home on the farm” of yeshiva, or the Amish community, or the Mormon temple, or whatever, when “liberated” modernity can seem so much less prudish and constricting. Persecution would be too easy. People in the Acela corridor aren’t going to imprison us. They’re going to mock us on Twitter and in SNL skits, because they think we’re bigoted and deluded and unhip.
Our kids don’t suffer from being oppressed. They LOVE being oppressed, and are perfectly happy casting orthodox parents as their lame, uncool oppressors–but would happily rebel against secular oppressors, too, just so long as they get to rebel against SOMEBODY. But kids suffer deeply from being unhip, from not being mature enough to know that Jesus is Santa Claus is a lie, from not being worldly in the ways of love, from not fitting in or being able to join in with their peers’ frolics.
Persecution, like that inflicted upon Israel by Assyria and Babylon, or on the early Church by Rome, is often a disciplining, strengthening rod in the hands of God the Father. But from Eden until today, the Serpent is at least as often a tempter as a persecuting adversary.
Maybe future bishops will die in jail. Maybe not. But that’s not the real danger. No one is jailed for not wanting to stay home in St. Francisville, but the kids leave, don’t they? Nobody would be jailed for not returning to the Amish community after rumspringa. But how do the Amish get the kids to come back? And how can we be more like them?
It’s the Front Porch stuff–the how do we keep the kids “on the farm” stuff–that we need to worry about. Nobody was persecuting St. Benedict for being a Christian! But he had to go to Monte Cassino anyway.
Don’t get too distracted by persecution, on the rare and mild occasions when it comes in modern secular America. Worry about temptation, about seductive advertisements and sophistical cynical worldviews. Those are the danger for which the Benedict Option is a remedy.
When I talk next week at the Q Conference about the Benedict Option, I’m going to open with Indiana and religious freedom, because that has been a catalyst for some sober thinking of late, but I will point out that even if this weren’t happening, we would need the Benedict Option, for precisely the reasons you say here, especially in this last paragraph. Nobody is forcing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism on anybody. But it’s winning.