Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 113: Christianity and the Roman Empire
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 113: Christianity and the Roman Empire

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Christianity's historical development from a small Jewish movement to a major world religion played an important role in the evolution of Christian theology, and the history of Christian theology heavily influenced contemporary Christian thought and belief.

Soon after Jesus' death, the Roman authorities started to persecute the Christians. Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, and a series of decrees starting in 381 made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. With these changes, the Church became a powerful political force.

Among other things, these political changes profoundly influenced Christians' understanding of personal and political freedom. Elaine Pagels has noted that "the majority of Christian converts of the first four centuries regarded the proclamation of moral freedom, grounded in Genesis 1-3, as effective synonymous with 'the gospel.'"1 The Genesis account described God giving Adam and Eve dominion over themselves as well as the rest of creation. Although God had expelled Adam and Eve from Eden after they misused their freedom, God did not strip people of their power to choose for themselves. The early Christians held that moral freedom empowered them to control their internal passions, such as greed and sexual desire, and to resist external authorities, such as the oppressive Roman government. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, "Preeminent among all is the fact that we are free from any necessity, and not in bondage to any power, but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion. Whatever is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue."2 The Romans could torture and kill Christians, but the Romans could not strip Christians of their freedom to practice and believe as they chose.3

As the Church gained political power, Christianity's emphasis on moral freedom gradually faded. In its place, Christian doctrine focused on eradicating sin, by force if necessary. Augustine's concept of Original Sin, which manifested itself in uncontrollable sexual desires, accorded well with this new outlook. If humans were slaves to sin, then salvation could only come from external forces that prevented people from condemning themselves. In other words, Augustine's formulation of Original Sin provided a theological basis for a Church/Empire alliance. Although Jesus did not oppose Roman authority (Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" [Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25; see also Matthew 22:21]), he did not endorse earthly church authority, particularly when it was bereft of love, compassion, and mercy.

Nevertheless, the Church asserted that it was the vehicle through which Christians obtained salvation, and Church authorities found Original Sin helpful as part of a framework that justified Church repression and violence "in the name of God."

The alignment of the orthodox Christian church with the Roman Empire significantly modified Christianity's understanding of Jesus' ministry and death. As John Douglas Hall has written, ". . . a religion that was ready to become the official cultus of imperial Rome . . . simply had to have a theology that matched its status. A glorious church could not have an inglorious theology. The very idea of a faith whose central image and symbol was a crucified Jew as the official (and after Theodosius) only legal religion of the empire that crucified him - such an idea is absurd and to a temporal power unthinkable."4 The central figure of the official religion of the Roman Empire could not be a Jew who taught love and peace and who suffered an ignominious death. Early Christians saw Jesus as a triumphant hero reigning at God's right hand (Matthew 26:64; Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33, 7:56; Romans 8:34), but the view promulgated by the Romans and their church allies was Jesus as a stern and forceful ruler rather than as a moral authority who showed followers how to live peacefully and righteously.

While Christians have always struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus' death, Christendom's alliance with the Roman Empire favored theologies in which God and/or Jesus vanquished the forces of evil rather than theologies that described Jesus teaching followers how to avoid those evil forces. In other words, the Church/Roman alliance encouraged theologies that regarded Jesus' death as part of a divine plan to physically conquer the forces of evil, just as the Roman Empire strove to conquer and control "evil" forces threatening the Empire. "Orthodox" church leaders, including Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Tertullian (c. 155-230), and Epiphanius (c. 315-403), had condemned as "evil" and "heresy" alternative understandings of Jesus' ministry; during the fourth century, the Church gained the power and authority to persecute "heretical" Christian communities and to destroy their literature.

There are many possible ways to understand the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, and numerous "atonement theories" have competed with each other for the hearts and minds of Christians. I think that Christian history helps explain why certain atonement theologies prevailed during the period of the Church/Roman Empire alliance as well as later periods, when church authorities remained aligned with reigning political forces. As we will see in subsequent essays, Girardian mimetic theory may offer helpful insights into the meaning of Jesus' death.

1. Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. New York: Random House, 1988, p. 73; Webb, Eugene. "Augustine's New Trinity: The Anxious Circle of Metaphor", in Williams, Michael A., Cox, Collett, and Jaffee, Martin S. Religious Innovation: Essays in Interpretation of Religious Change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1992, pp. 191-214. 2. Pagels, pp. 98-99. 3. Pagels, p. 73. 4. Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Minneapolis,: Fortress Press, 2003, pp. 171-172 [primary source located in Pagels, note 5].

Go on to: Part 114: Atonement Theology, part 1: Leading Theories
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