Christian Persecution In The Roman Empire

There are two main phases in the second great period of Church history which I have outlined above. The first is the era of persecution, and it runs from about 50 A.D. to 313-314 A.D. During this phase Christians stood outside the established order, and the martyrs fearlessly faced that fact.

The martyrs were killed in the arena as atheists. We may feel that the Romans were ignorant indeed to kill Christians on such grounds. But if we are to appreciate the why and wherefore of their martyrdom, we must realize that they were "atheists" with respect to the Roman gods, and with respect to the values propounded by Roman culture. Such "atheism" is aserious matter indeed. To say that the sun was not a god was to empty temples all over the empire and to leave countless people without any gods. To say that the moon was not a goddess was to leave the night without any trace of divinity; and since the moon goddess was closely related to the earth goddess, it presaged catastrophic happenings in agriculture and field work. Finally, to say that . the emperor was not a god was to engage in political subversion.

When we hear the early apologists saying that the moon and sun are not gods, we are likely to feel that their remarks are rather purposeless for us today. We forget that the "gods" change, and that we must always know who and what they are at a given moment. When the Christian does perform his prophetic task, when he points out that money or the existing political order is not a god, then his remarks take on a subversive tone and he is once more dragged into the arena. It is there that the enemies of the reigning false gods are taken care of. The true Christian will always have to die the death of a martyr, giving up his life for the sake of the Other. And the Other is the poor and lowly person who, like Jesus, does not have his own army. The martyr bears witness to the poor, for the sin of domination is fundamentally a deniar of Jesus and God himself.

Consider all the theological revisions we are going to have to make. The death of the Christian martyrs in the Roman empire is something very relevant today because we have just started to get beyond the Mediterranean experience and we are feeling the full force of the rough weather ahead. This does not mean we should go back to the primitive Church of the first century. It does mean we are going to have to experience the full process of universalizing the Church which started then, and that certain features of the primitive Church are pertinent for us today.

Let us consider some of the features of the primitive Christian communities before Christianity became an established religion and turned into Christendom. First of all, there was a great deal of freedom in the area of liturgical innovation and inventiveness. Each community had its own liturgy. There was no "folk religion" because the devotion of the average person found expression in the key liturgical rites. Christian groups and grass-roots communities met to formulate their liturgies on the basis of simple frameworks which took their day-to-day life into account.

Second, these grass-roots coinmunities were relatively small. People knew each other personally, so they could share each other's joys and sufferings. They were not the impersonal crowds that would come on the scene later. Third, on the philosophical or theologicallevel, there was a confrontation between two different ways of comprehending being and existence. The Indo-European out look saw reality as that which was present and permanent before people's eyes. That was "being" (Greek ousia), and it was One. Hence in this view there was a strong thrust towards pantheism. Over against it stood Judaeo-Christian thought. Note that I say "Judaeo" because the first Christians were J ews for the most part, and because on the metaphysicallevel Christians did not contribute any new thesis. The vision of man and history held by the first Christians was a Jewish one. Christianity rooted this vision in Jesus Christ and thus formulated a new anthropological phase within Jewish tradition, but it did not introduce any metaphysical novelty.

What ensued was really "culture shock," perhaps the most interesting and noteworthy shock in world history. The Mediterranean community lived out this basic experience from within hellenistic culture. It had to transcend the existing horizon of Indo-European thought and inject a new horizon for understanding and comprehending existence. In so doing, it radically transformed the prevailing outlook, because the Greek world saw the being of the cosmos as something that was eternal and divine. Since Judaeo-Christian thought saw the cosmos as something created, it radically transformed everything. Christians de-sacralized the cosmos and its realities, making them tools of man. And this secularized cosmos is the modern world in which we now live. Man would never have reached the moon if that theological revolution had not occurred previously. It was a fundamental revolution in human history, and it was brought about by those early Christians who were persecuted in the first centuries of Church history.

Those early centuries are thus of the utmost importance. We will have to go back and study them more closely because we may presendy find ourselves in a very similar situation. The situation of the Christian thinker today may be very similar to that of Justin, Tatian, and the other Christian apologists.

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