Section 5

Medieval Civilization

Chapter 1

The Christians and the pagans

The original "we" of the Christians was just the small number of members of the community, though it was clear that they had the mission of extending the message, and so the roll of believers, throughout the whole world.

The early Christians were in an absurd position, of course, and brought upon themselves a good deal of ridicule with all their talk about being emissaries of this "Prince" of theirs who had been killed (and as a criminal to boot), and was supposed to be waiting in the land of the dead to come back and claim the throne of the world. "Christian," of course, means "Prince-ist."

But more than that, the conflict between the two cities took place in earnest when the Romans discovered that the Christians would not worship Caesar in addition to their own god; and they were worse than the Jews, who at least kept themselves to themselves. These people were trying to win over everyone to this "true belief," which even seemed to have elements of cannibalism about it.

And so there was an attempt by the broad-minded Romans to destroy the narrow-minded Christians before they got destroyed themselves. It is not that the Christians were attacking them, or being disloyal citizens; as Paul's writings make clear, they were bending over backward to be obedient to the commands of Caesar and to give Caesar everything that belonged to Caesar. No, the fact was that the sophisticated Romans, who did not really stand for anything as true, were the ones who slaughtered the Christians, who actually thought that there was something true. This was the first major instance of bigoted anti-bigotry. If religious wars dominated the world from the emergence of Islam onward, the first religious war was a war of secularists against religion; it wasn't "narrow-minded" religion that took the aggressive stance; it was secularism.

That is, the paganism of ancient Rome was not a deeply held conviction that there actually were the gods they worshiped; if anything, these gods represented the forces of nature. But the fact that they could shift around their worship to accommodate worship of the emperors showed that the religion was really window-dressing for something political. Rome used religion, and specifically worship of the emperor, as a symbolic way of declaring fealty to Rome's rule, not really as something religions. Thus, in spite of the fact that the Christians were persecuted and killed for not worshiping the Roman gods, they were really harassed for disloyalty to what was essentially a secular state.

And the Roman empire was not only secular, but incredibly corrupt. Even in Paul's day, the sophisticated engaged in practices that people of our present age of sexual revolution could take lessons from; and the aberrations in conduct got more ingenious as time went on. It is interesting that the decay of a people tends to show up in sexual excess, when the act of love is perverted into bizarre titillation for its own sake.

Because of this, many early Christians fled from society altogether and went by themselves or in small groups into the desert, where they could worship God in peace away from the temptations of "the world."