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Christians: Haters of Humanity

Written by Michael Cline : January 19, 2008

Most of the charges filed against the followers of Chrestus (presumably Christ) in the days of the Roman Empire are easy to appreciate; and even easier to refute. The secret nature of the new Judeo-Christian sect certainly didn’t help matters much as all types of rumors began to flare up about those who “eat of the flesh” and have “love feasts.” But even the most biased historian has come to the conclusion that these rumors were just misunderstandings of early Christian worship practices. Christians were not killing their young, didn’t eat human flesh, and were not sleeping with their mothers.

With that settled, there is a harder claim to refute. Roman historian Tacitus, writing about the persecution under Emperor Nero (64 AD), details how Christians were “set up” as the culprits for a fire that had broken out in Rome. With pressures mounting, Nero needed a scapegoat. Who better to turn against than those Christians, who were already despised thanks to the before mentioned rumors being circulated. Tacitus goes on to tell us that those convicted were actually found guilty not so much for arson, but because of their “hatred of the human race.” Despite the ancient historian’s agreement that the various rumors were indeed false, he doesn’t refute this damning accusation. What gives? Were Christians walking around and spitting in the eyes of good citizens? Did they spread tuberculosis among the crowds? Was a plan exposed where the followers of Christ were revealed to be planning a bloody coup?

The charge of hatred is enmeshed with the idea of religious piety in ancient Rome. To be a good citizen in the Roman Empire meant to participate in the civic life of the state. The gladiator games, the burning of incense to gods, pledging loyalty to the emperor…all of these things were deeply ingrained in Rome’s vision of religious life. To be religious was not just to worship, but to care for the welfare of the State. When the people were fulfilling their religious obligations, peace abounded and the state prospered. When the empire hit a rough spell, religious dissonance was often blamed. Contrary to popular opinion, Roman Emperors were not all ruthless dictators who sought to control every minuscule detail in their vast kingdom—they were men who were thoroughly committed to the stability of their land. With stability came ongoing power which was obviously the name of the game. Often times, stability was achieved through a mandatory offering of sacrifices to the imperial majesty. Just one unified act and we all go on about our lives.

Holding to their belief that there could be no supreme authority other than Christ, Christians simply refused to bow to the Empire’s wishes. They could not admonish Caesar as if he was lord over anything. Furthermore, their opinions on violence and human worth led them away from the coliseums where blood often flowed for sport. In stepping out of public life, they were doing more than just being superstitious (another common claim by the mobs)—they were disrupting the religious piety of the empire. Their lack of commitment to the security of Rome surely meant that they wished harm on the State and its inhabitants. Christians hated Rome, which in their thinking, included all of humanity.

This has led me to ponder whether or not this charge could ever be applied to the Church today? Do we do anything so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that the world could ever levy such an accusation? Undoubtedly the goal is not just to be obstinate, but are there things that we feel God calling us towards that would serve the Kingdom of God that we hesitate to do because it rubs against the grain of the American Empire? If we did these things, others would exclaim “They are out of touch with reality! Do they hate everyone but themselves? Who died and pegged them citizens of another world?”

…Exactly.

mike.jpgMichael Cline is a freelance pastor and and over-employed learner who currently attends Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. When not snuggling with his wife, he’s blogging here.




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    Anyone have a few of these things popping up in their mind? I was thinking not voting could bring a similar charge from good American citizens.
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    I definitely got a little of that when I didn't vote in an election. Also got some when I didn't want to do gifts for Christmas and get a tiny bit whenever I rant against big corporations, consumerism, malls, etc.
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    Nonviolence draws attention during times of war. Though not as much as it used to. I think that depends upon the "rightness" of the war in question. During WWII, anabaptists were called haters of America and many of their farms were burnt. A handful of Anabaptist youths were treated harshly in prisons for refusing to wear uniforms. I know of one American military person who, upon a conversion during his term of duty said he would go back into the field, but only if he was allowed to leave his weapon behind (his name is Logan Laituri).

    For the most part, it isn't what we avoid that upsets people. It is what we do that upsets people in our nation today. And I think we need to take a stand against violence and oppression and greed and other evils in big and small ways...that will draw attention.

    What would happen if we organized peace vigils for every young man that is killed in gang violence? That would irritate a lot of people. Or worked towards restoring sex offenders? What if I set up a Christian Peacemaker Teams table next to every Army table at Christian schools and seminaries? What if we started finding new, more theologically appetizing ways of doing public evangelism? Etc.
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    "What if I set up a Christian Peacemaker Teams table next to every Army table at Christian schools and seminaries"

    I know a good place we could start. My favorite is when recruiters call me or approach me, especially on Christian campuses.

    Good ideas mark. You've got me thinking
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    Hmm, that's interesting... the pingback has the thread titles from the RSS widget I have for JM on my blog, instead of what I actually posted about this article.

    I think working to try and start a student organization on campus for peace, including counter-recruiting awareness, would be a pretty effective way to bring such charges upon our heads.
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    Hey, Mike. I'd be willing to come and help have a table next to the military tables at Bethel Sem if you'd be on board.
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    In a way, I think our culture has become so used to protest or (pseudo)prophetical demonstration that the ability of Christians to truly challenge the status quo is getting smaller or smaller. And that due in no small part to very nature of the culture we confront. Discordant content or brutally surprising messages are par for the course. When the Truth (the anti-cigarette group) stages a thousand body-bags in the streets of Manhattan or PETA puts up billboards comparing chicken farming to the Holocaust, middle of the road folks become more immune to the moment of shocked awareness that accompanies such displays. Its becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to come up with prophetic actions on par with Ezekiel eating food cooked over a burning pile of feces. And given that our culture lacks any unifying ritual or narrative at this point, I'm not sure that we could stand out like the first-centuries Christian. Today, subtlety is needed most.
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    Nathan,

    I tend to think that the very phenomenon of which you speak has the potential to drive the church back to a more "rootsy" state, if I may use the phrase, where the effectiveness of creating a spectacle is so diminished that we are left with few choices except to gather in community and create our own sub-social practices that are subversive of the violent state-capital order. The most radical act we can commit, I think, is to move into the neighborhood and love people, be Jesus to them.

    While I am not inherently opposed to demonstrations and other spectacular events, I am wary of them for various reasons, not the least being related to the Jews' desire for a sign that is repeatedly referenced in the Gospels. Jesus's fullest revelation of who he is in the Synoptic Gospels prior to the Passion was only given to Peter, James, and John. John has it a bit different with the dramatic raising from the dead scene, but still is clear that the place where Jesus's glory is most visible is on the cross. The most subversive task we can undertake is to carry our cross in community in the neighborhood - not carrying the cross as some kind of vague burden that is the common lot of humankind, but carrying the cross in its true sense - what J.H. Yoder says, that carrying the cross is marching to one's own execution as the inevitable social consequence of deliberately choosing to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
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    I'd definitely be on board Mark. I started toying with the idea during my days at Indiana Wesleyan University, which recently started a ROTC chapter entitled "Roaring Lambs" chapter (after the popular Bob Briner book, which is a model book for the campus administration).

    I'll look into when the military recruiters come around. Maybe I can make a few connections that will give us their yearly schedule. The dynamic between us, the recruiters, and those at the seminary that have whole heartedly bought into military chaplaincy (which I go back and forth on) would be a fun and productive escapade.
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    --This has led me to ponder whether or not this charge could ever be applied to the Church today? Do we do anything so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that the world could ever levy such an accusation?--

    All the time. When Christians refuse to cave to liberal PC-ness, refuse to say that things like sexual immorality and abortion are right simply because they are considered ok by society and the media, do not back down from the truths of scripture even when others are selling out to popular demand, when churches refuse to sell out to the ecumenicals because it really does matter what you believe no matter how sincere you are, then we are "counter-cultural" in a godly way.

    --because it rubs against the grain of the American Empire?--

    American empire. Ain't no such thing. Not it will keep you from using this conveniet fiction, I suppose.

    At least I know what you mean by "counter-culture". Sorry, but I'm going there.
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    Hmm. How is America NOT an empire?
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    btw saw a serious typo in my entry. It should say at the end "I'm not going there".
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    --Hmm. How is America NOT an empire?--

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/empire

    Let's check the definitions, shall we, and see if any apply.

    --a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, French Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman Empire.--

    nope

    --a government under an emperor or empress.--

    nope

    --(often initial capital letter) the historical period during which a nation is under such a government: a history of the second French empire.--

    nope

    --supreme power in governing; imperial power; sovereignty: Austria's failure of empire in central Europe.--

    nope

    --a powerful and important enterprise or holding of large scope that is controlled by a single person, family, or group of associates: The family's shipping empire was founded 50 years ago.--

    nope

    --(initial capital letter) a variety of apple somewhat resembling the McIntosh.--

    nope

    So, since none of the definitions apply, I see no reason to use the word, except insofar as it supports a political agenda to have people think of the US as some kind of empire. And since that is how such rhetoric is most often used these days, well, 2+2.
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    I'm going to write a brief article about this. Stay tuned.
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    jazzact -

    I can't help but wondering if your definition of "counter-culture" isn't similarly a 'convenient fiction.' One can be desperately pro-life, against today's sexual mores and deeply scriptural while simultaneously being ecumenical, anti-death penalty and profoundly disturbed by America's position and conduct in the world. These are not mutually exclusive positions. I think the fact that you bring up an obviously political word (liberal) to deride Cline's post speaks volumes.
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    Yeah. What Nathan said.

    I am profoundly pro-life. And I get grumpy at the softening of ethics and morality in our society. Anabaptists have been anti-Empire, pro-life, pro-peace, etc. for 500 years. Does that make them liberal? Or are they conservatives in the best sense of the word?
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    I think Mennonite Church USA's position on abortion adopted in 2003 is fairly crummy. We decline to support pro-life measures , using the excuse that Christian morality must be accepted voluntarily and not imposed on everyone.
    Yet our position papers on on the war in Iraq and the death penalty advise us to witness to government officials, asking them to oppose the war and executions.
    Why can't we also ask government officials to put an end to legalized abortion?
    I figure it's because our denominational leaders tend to be "liberal Democrats' and support for so-called "abortion rights" is practically a non-negotiable litmus test within the current Democratic Party. I couldn't care less about the Democratic Party or any other party-I just want to be consistently against killing people.
 

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