Saturday, June 4, 2016

Thoughts on the Dark Ages

Dear Hannah,

The Huffington Post has gone too far by calling Jesus transgender, but the Romans called Christians cannibals and to me getting called transgender is a step forward.  The problem with Christians isn't that they cross-dress but that they cross-count.  They think one is three and three is one and if you didn't agree with them in a whole millenium they'd kill you.  They think bread is body and grape juice is blood and if you didn't assert it they'd light you on fire.  Whether this is better or worse than dressing up like a woman isn't a matter of opinion.  What the Huffington Post claims is kinder than what Christians have actually been.  No -- you don't call Jesus a she-male.  But beyond this you don't murder a good mathematician.

Thousand of people died for this after the reign of Constantine.  First the empire became officially Christian.  Next the army was mobilized against heretics.  The next thing you knew, St. Athanasius was an outlaw, Alexandria was besieged, women got raped, churches got sacked, and Christians got murdered by Christians.  The disagreement was sharp and the discussion was dull.  Was God of one or two substances?  Or was he both?  The answer was given at the point of a sword.

Edward Gibbon notes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that official Christendom's first decades were a fight between Arians and Catholics -- both of them Christians.  There were riots and rapes, exiles and assassinations; fist-fights and mayhem and overall devilry; and if there was any difference between the old pagan government and the new Christian one, it was that the pagans allowed metaphysics and the Christians would stab you over it.  New arguments were made for the eucharist.  They said that one thing could have all the aspects of one thing and actually be another thing; and that in the realm of the sacred it can walk and talk like a duck and end up being a dog.  The stumbling block here wasn't that you lacked faith in God.  It was that you had too much faith in the eyes that God gave you.

I don't think many people imagined, when Jesus said He came to bring a sword instead of peace, that He was speaking just as much about the violence between Christians as the violence against them.  Lactantius, Constantine's advisor, expected the establishment of Christianity to usher in a golden era of peace and virtue.  Anyone with his head on straight would have listened to Jesus.

I say this for several reasons.  The machinery of government, since Rome had quit republicanism, had been steadily building on itself.  It became more effective and more pervasive.  They were better at finding political dissidents and ruining them.  

This was used for political means at first and spiritual means right after.  The land was infiltrated by secret police.  Laws permitted torture, at first against slaves and foreigners, but eventually against citizens such as women and old people and children.  The legislative, executive and judicial powers were all concentrated in the emperor.  It killed off all the emperor's rivals alongside any freedom of the populace.  The idea of government was the same idea as oppression.  

Before the unification of church and state, the church elected officials locally from each board.  Their churches were self-run governments, mostly, and each in turn was governed by an elected council.  They were effectively free and democratic.  Constantine became the emperor and put the machinery of government into the service of the church.  What once was decided by councils was suddenly upheld or persecuted by the emperor.  A doctrinal controversy went from being a controversy and went to being a crime.  Constantine himself was fairly liberal -- but we couldn't say the same for his successors.

The organization of the church, alongside the strengths and habits of the congregations, was able to keep the emperors from many acts of outright tyranny.  For a while, anyway.  They were used to fighting the pagans and transferred this pluck against the "saved" kings.  They were experts in civil disobedience and, as their Lord and Savior taught them, in distinguishing between earthly and heavenly authority.  But they had been oppressed a long time and were tired of it.  The power was more tempting than they were capable of resisting.  They took the power of their enemies and they ran with it; and instead of giving the tolerance they'd spent so many years begging for, were content, like any other political faction, with persecuting their enemies and all differences of opinion.  

Toleration is most usually the pretense of the underdog.  It's rarely your policy when you get to the top.  Christ had warned them about imposters and the church had become too powerful to just attract Christians.  They expected a Golden Age and forgot about the Tares and the Wheat.  We all know even sincere Christians make mistakes.  But they weren't ready to account for the people who wanted money and power -- and were thus only pretending to be Christians.  The church always suffers from sin and from weakness and failure, but I believe it suffers most publicly because of imposters.

But what were we to expect?  Paul whittled political theory down to two points.  One of them was obvious and the other was dangerous.  The first is that the government is God's instrument to attack evil and support good.  The second is that every ruler, whether upright or terrible, is personally appointed by God.  With this as the foundation of Paul's government, it's crazy to expect anything other than the worst.  The complexity of Christian theology and the generality of Christ's commandments gave us a government interested in the smallest aspects of moral life.   Its absolute "legitimacy" keeps (or is supposed to keep) anyone from burning it down.  We can be thankful that Christians take the world more seriously than the New Testament, and that whatever they preach, kings can goad them into a good heavenly lynching.  They're willing to turn the other cheek -- but only to a point; and we can thank this failure of religion for the existence of every right we cherish today.     

My solution to this whole mess (which happens to be John Locke's solution) is simple: that there are two broadly (and perhaps too broadly) defined realms of jurisdiction: the temporal and the spiritual. The government is to judge the first, and the church is to judge the second. The first is to rule over the body, and the second is to rule over the soul. 

Christ Himself set this precedent when he was approached by someone asking to divide an inheritance. "Take it to the judge," was His response, and I think we can deduce from this that if Christ refused a ruling on property, the people He left in charge of the church ought to as well. Of course we know Christ, if He is God, has jurisdiction over everything. But I believe He split the jurisdiction because he knew that policing people's souls is extremely intrusive, and if combined with the power of the sword, extremely dangerous -- especially in the hands of idiots, who have neither the insight into people's brains, nor the wisdom to know where to stop.  So our leaders are given authority to reward good and punish evil. But there's a distinction made in their powers to do it. The government defends life limb and property with honors and the sword. The church polices the soul  with preaching, shunning, and if all else fails, excommunication. 

Yours,
-J

3 comments:

  1. Dear Mr. J. I delighted in reading this article. You speak of St. Paul's political theory. For if true, then if government is God's instrument in persecution of evil as evil doers are fearful thereof; and, if personally appointed by God; then it does not follow that such jurisprudence is of pernicious roots or that it turns to spiritual tyranny! It may keep the peace, but tyranny? It may maintain the freedom of peoples, but tyranny? This makes no sense. Veiled bias, peut etre?

    For true freedom is the ability to choose to do good and right not evil. If law is based on reason and the law of nature, such law is just; yet if not based on the law of nature then such law is unjust. At such a point where law is not grounded on reason and the law of nature, such is the beginning of tyranny, spiritual, temporal or otherwise. God is not the author of such tyranny, nor His people--although any flawed human (Christian or not) can instigate tyranny or be "goaded into acts of legitimate and manly violence." One truth is that God is not the author of evil.

    With respect, your itinerant reader, John

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    1. A quick apology -- this last section of my essay was unclear, and incomplete, and is going to be rewritten. What I failed to mention here is that my position is the same one as John Locke's, and so far as I can tell, Jesus Christ's.

      This position is simple. That there are two broadly (and perhaps too broadly) defined realms of jurisdiction: the temporal and the spiritual. The government is to judge the first, and the church is to judge the second. The first is to rule over the body, and the second is to rule over the soul.

      Christ Himself set this precedent when he was approached by someone asking to divide an inheritance. "Take it to the judge," was His response, and I think we can deduce from this that if Christ refused a ruling on property, the people He left in charge of the church ought to as well.

      Of course we know Christ has jurisdiction over everything. But I believe He split the jurisdiction because he knew that policing people's souls is extremely intrusive, and if combined with the power of the sword, extremely dangerous -- especially in the hands of idiots, who have neither the insight into people's brains, nor the wisdom to know where to stop.

      You're 100% right. Our leaders are given authority to reward good and punish evil. But there's a distinction made in their powers to do it. The government does it with honors and the sword. The church does it with preaching, shunning, and if all else fails, excommunication.

      See how much I've improved with writing?

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  2. Thanks for your response, J!

    No apology necessary; and yes, the writing--like I experienced over time--has greatly improved. You may have discovered Strunk and White's classic, "Elements of Style," which was given to me by a professor to read and practice as a young man, as as I have reviewed again ongoing. I benefited from it.

    I agree there are two jurisdictions, one temporal and one spiritual. And, your citation of Christ's admonition of "take it to the judge," is right. In the affairs of mankind, each knows that he or she falls short; for if any be perfect among us, I would like to meet Him!

    As no one perfect is presently incarnate--except as stated in John 6--we know we must submit our temporal life and property to the government. Within reason.

    It was St. Robert Bellarmine in his treatise "On Civil Government" in 1600s who wrote against the English throne's faux theory of the divine right, recognized the concept of the consent of the governed, limited government, and of God-given human rights. Which can also be founded in Aquinas. It is clear T. Jefferson knew of Filmer's work called "Patriarchia", in which he defends the divine right against Bellarmine. I do not think it a stretch that J. Locke knew of Bellarmine's work.

    You are right about Christ's jurisdiction over all things, but He did split the jurisdiction. It is here that you clearly understand the need for limited government, because of the fallen nature of mankind. As James Madison said in Federalist No. 51, "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

    The government must be limited, so that human freedom is protected and guarded against an intrusive and an ideologically-driven agenda.

    As to the Church's power, it does it persuasively via preaching. In order to do so in love, however, that preaching must speak in the truth, for if God is truth as well as love, then these must speak to us. Where the preaching is not truth, or--as in many cases--utter nonsense, then those who reject the nonsense are shunned. If one is shunned by purveyors of nonsense, is that not a good thing?

    The Church does use excommunication as a way to wield authority. That is true. But I suggest that it is done so out of love. St. Paul explains this well in I and II Corinthians, involving the adulterer who slept with his mother-in-law, for after being excommunicated, and out of love expressed by the Church community, he repented and returned to the fold. He confessed and returned.

    Now, after all is said and done in this life, the only thing that remains is love. Thank you my friend.

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