Book Review by Ursus
"There is no crime for those have Christ," declared Shenoute, a fifth-century Egyptian abbot. For Shenoute and those like him, the call from Christ to promote, defend and preserve the new religion outweighed any other consideration and justified any means.
"Violence - whether of the margins or of the center - cannot be understood without reference to the values, motives and self-preservations of its authors," explains Michael Gaddis, the book's author. He spends the rest of his 392 page treatise seeking to do just that. The book is not a mere catalogue of acts of religious violence, but attempts to explain the context in which violence occurred. It seeks to define violence, the parties involved, and the justifications behind it within the context of the Roman Empire's evolution from a Pagan to a Catholic society. Particular attention is paid to the concept of the martyr and how it defined and was defined by early Christianity.
Some background might be in order, and Gaddis does a nice job explaining the essentials. One thing that Roman paganism and Christianity had in common was a belief that offending divinity could result in supernatural wrath, whether in the form of natural disasters or social decay. The Roman state demanded lip service be paid to its gods on the theory that without such outward signs of respect divine retribution might occur. When Roman citizenship was universally extended, Rome's gods became truly universal, and thus gave a greater impetus for the Roman state to exact religious conformity. This became all the more urgent in the later empire, when the various troubles seemed to suggest the gods were no longer sheltering Rome under their divine protection.
Fortunately most of Rome's pagan subjects could at least pay lip service to the Roman State religion without offending their own beliefs. Lip service, the outward expression of conformity and the mere absence of any overt challenge to the prevailing order, was all that Rome actually demanded of its citizens. If by chance someone was brought before the state on charges of subverting the religious order, they were given every opportunity to repent and be reconciled to the state. Why then did early Christians deliberately provoke the Roman State with their new religion?
As Gaddis explains, Christians by and large felt the secular world was fleeting and worthless, and their entire vocation was to transcend it in favor of a promised afterlife. They were on a quest to conquer the devil and demons, and every act of persecution was a demonstration of their faith in Christ, a victory over evil. Martyrdom - torture or death at the hands of so-called oppressors - was the ultimate act of defiance, defiance not only of the Pagan state religion, but of the secular world in general and the demons who supposedly ruled it. Martyrdom was a path to salvation. Martyrs would often destroy Pagan property and provoke Pagan masses precisely to incite Pagans into torturing or killing them. This would give the martyrs the demonstration (and subsequent salvation) they sought, while simultaneously giving their peers an excuse to demonize pagans for having the temerity to avenge themselves.
Some Christians adhered to martyrdom more rigorously than others, though. As Gaddis points out, most of the martyrs were on the bottom rungs of Christian society - those with the least to lose and the most to gain. The ranking members of the Christian hierarchy such as the bishops were less likely to suffer pain or death as a demonstration of their faith. Indeed, some bishops regarded the martyrs with a certain envy or suspicion, as the Christian masses began to hold the martyrs in higher esteem than the officials who delivered the sacraments of the Church. It might be suggested this fame and following is what prompted some martyrs as much as any purely religious sentiment.
The dichotomy between the establishment of the Christian Church and its rank and file took a sudden turn with the conversion of Constantine. Now suddenly Christians were in possession of the same state that had been persecuting them. Those that had excoriated the Roman Empire and the secular world as demonic abominations were now suddenly in charge of it. The irony was not lost on some. Schisms developed between those who were comfortable with the Church's newfound reliance on secular power and those who found it a profanity. Those bishops allied with Constatine's new order called themselves "Catholic" meaning universal, implying their version of Christianity was by definition for everyone. The Christian minorities who did not subscribe to the Catholic view were deemed by the Catholics as heretics.
Among one of the most virulent of the "heretical" Christian sects were Donatists, especially prominent in Africa. The Donatists did not disguise their contempt for Catholics and their reliance on state power. In response, Constantine's new state used the very power held in contempt by the Donatists against them. Catholic Bishops armed with imperial soldiers seized Donatist basilicas, and if Donatists mobs revolted they were duly massacred.
Christian was now fighting Christian. Or rather, Christians allied with the remains of the Roman imperial order were now at odds with Christians who refused to compromise with the imperial order. To Donatists, the persecution of the Pagan state had been replaced with the persecution of the Catholic state. Nothing had really changed. There were still evil and corrupt persecutors, and there were still holy martyrs. The Donatist Martyrs actively resisted, deliberately provoking the Catholic state to grant them the conditions necessary to prove their faith by torture or death.
The Catholics were faced with the prospect of coming across as persecutors in the tradition of the pagan state they usurped. To solve this problem, two solutions were offered. The first solution was that Catholicism was the one true version of Christianity, all other versions were heretical; the heretics who died at the hands of the Catholic state were therefor not by definition martyrs as only true Christians could be martyrs. Those who died at the hands of the universal church were not martyrs but criminals.
The other solution was offered by Augustine. Initially skeptical about the use of state violence against fellow Christians, Augustine resigned his concerns when he saw that violence was efficacious. Violence could be tolerated precisely because it worked. More importantly, it worked in the service of the Church to save souls for Christ. Heretics were sick, so thought Augustine. State violence was the surgeon's scalpel which, while unfortunately unpleasant, was necessary to heal the patient.
But there were limits to the violence employed by the state for religious conformity. Violence was merely a tool, not an end in itself. If violence were the means, unity and peace were the ends. Violence was employed to achieve religious conformity for the ends of peace and stability. If violence were used less like a scalpel and more like a club, it could grow out of hand and defeat the very end of stability it was trying to achieve. The most Christian of Emperors, Theodosius I, lamented the wanton disregard of property rights demonstrated by zealous Christians against pagans and heretics. "The monks commit many crimes," the emperor noted disapprovingly. The Emperor Valens also seemed to note that Christian monks had no productive capacity beyond praying and inciting violence. Unlike the medieval inquisitors, the Christian emperors were interested not that their subjects were inwardly Christian, but merely that they not overtly challenge the state. The emperors, in other words, demanded lip service and nothing more, and were willing to use violence only to ensure universal lip service to the new order. They behaved, much as the Donatists pointed out, like the Pagan imperial officials before them. When violence of the new Christian state was taken to excess, it was often committed by overly zealous Christian foot soldiers rather than from imperial orders.
Christianity suffered a dichotomy between those who used it for political expediency, and the true believers who were willing to kill and be killed to defend the authenticity of its message. Caught between the two groups were a great many people for whom religion took a back seat to daily survival.
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Such then is the complicated picture of religious violence as the Roman Empire transitioned from a Pagan state into a Catholic one. The author uses many details and anecdotes to prove his points. Indeed, in this reviewer's opinion the author can be overly detailed at times which makes for slow reading. Gaddis concludes with an admonition that violence, whatever its ultimate intentions or justifications, can go beyond its designated boundaries and defeat its intended purposes, only inspiring more violence.
My central problem with this whole work is that I did not need to read over three hundred pages to come to this conclusion. However, those without a prior exposure to the subject may find this work a sound exploration of the topic. Certainly Christians, Pagans and Agnostics alike should all be conversant with the subject.
Book Review of There Is No Crime For Those Who have Christ - Related Topic: Christianity History
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