Friday, 11 April 2014

Ancient Judeo- Christianity and the Big Society

I'm sure you've all heard about Cameron's Easter Reception speech (yes, that time he called himself a giant Dyno-rod- what even?) But he said some other things. Things like "Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago, I just want to see more of it and encourage as much of it as possible." Well, I'm no Bible scholar, and I'm probably not the person to do a decent scripture deconstruction of it. Instead, I'm going to look at the three major things Cameron said he cared about in his speech, and how they align up with what things were like in ancient Judeo-Christianity.

If you are interested, you can read the full text of Cameron's speech here.

1. "To expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country."

I'm going to liberally replace "faith" here with "non-governmental". This is because there was no seperation between faith and state in the ancient world; people working in civil magistracies were the administrators of local law and goverment and also the important people in festivals, performing the sacrifice or saying the prayer, or making the annual dedications.  But, basically, Cameron would prefer it if the state did fewer things, and the slack was picked up by people further down. Preferably people he doesn't have to pay.

Good news, Dave! The Roman system is just the model for you! What you do, simply, is take over a place with violence or the threat of violence, and then offer financial or status incentives to the existing elites. Allow them to keep their cushy jobs, as long as they go along with what you say and don't rock the boat. Don't worry about accountability, these kinds of local politics are so obscure we in the modern world know almost nothing about them. If people have a problem they can complain to the governor of the province, or to the emperor (we have papyri archives of people's documents, giving court dates and trial details and contracts. One published example is the Babatha Archive, from Judea.) If you complained to the Emperor, you usually had to do it as a whole city, after which you would engrave both your petition and the emperor's response onto a tablet and proudly display it. Look! The emperor had, for a few glorious minutes, thought about your small town! And he'd tell the governor to do something, and if you were lucky the governor actually would.

In the absence of the internet, high-speed communication or Public Schools producing a particularly viciously patriotic brand of civil servants (looking at you, British Empire), this was how the Romans chose to govern. For the most part, it worked. If you don't mind non-existent public services, a postcode lottery like no other, rampant corruption, nepotism and impossible legal systems.

When Judea was first taken over, they had  successive series of client kings and procurators or prefects. The only real difference here was that the client king was from a previous royal familiy (or the Romans had decided he was), and the procurator (or prefect) was a Roman official. Pontius Pilate was the procurator between 26-36 CE. The Biblical story of Pilate is rather relevant here. Famously, he "washes his hands" (Gospel of Matthew) of the Jesus business, and lets the Jewish High Priests do what they want. This nicely epitomises the differences: Pilate is hands-off (literally) and not interested in understanding the intricacies of
Jewish law.

2. "To raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world." 

If he'd just left that there, I'd have been happy (ish). Religious persectution is bad, as all forms of persecution are bad, and not to be condoned in any sense. However, he then went on to say "It is the case today that our religion [Christianity] is now the most persecuted religion around the world." He barely elaborates on what this persecution is, and how it is to be definied. Therefore, I'm going to be very clear about this: There are places in the world that Christians are persecuted, and I am not saying that isn't happening. However, contrary to what many panicked Daily Mail readers think, Christianity is not under threat in this country.

In this country, a Christian nurse might be told she can't wear a crucifix on a chain at work. She can wear it on a pin, though, or inside her clothes if this specific one is important! It's just that dangling necklaces are considered a heath and safety violation.

In Judea, and across the Roman world, Jews and Christians were subject to all kinds of discriminations and were often persecuted. The famous Christian persectutions were sporadic but horrible: under Nero some were blamed for the great fire at Rome and were burned to death in AD 64; Pliny wrote a letter between AD109-111 detailing how he'd had to have a Deaconess tortured for being a Christian, in case the rumors about them eating babies was true (Letters x.96); and of course the Great Persecution of AD303, in which an estimated 3,000 Christians were killed and many more imprisoned or tortured.

But persecution doesn't have to just mean death! It means being prevented from practising your faith! That's what's going on in this country!

Well, Jews were exempt from having to sacrifice to the Imperial Cult (the Emperor-worshipping part of Roman practices. Sacrificing to another god (not Yahweh) is banned in the Old Testament which affects both Jews and Christians), except for in their Temple in Jerusalem, where sacrifices were made "on behalf of the Jewish people". So... they were only compelled to worhip the Emperor in their most hold space. That's not so bad! (Caution: sarcasm) Also, after the First Jewish Revolt, the Temple was burned down, and after the Bar Kochba revolt (the second Jewish revolt) the Romans established a Roman colony on top of Jerusalem and put a big temple to Jupiter Capitolinus (Jupiter of the Capitoline, one of Rome's seven hills) right on top of it. Then they banned Jews from entering for ten years and put up a carving of a pig on one of the gates (probably).

As for Christians, in AD250, in an attempt to reassert Roman religion, Emperor Decius established a precedent. He ordered that all people (excepting the Jews) had to make a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate and obtain a witnessed certificate that they had done so. This forced Christians to violate some of their most deeply held convictions: that they could not worship another god, and that they could not make sacrifices. There are no estimates for numbers of deaths, but many Christians apostatised, and the incident is bitterly remembered in some of the texts from the period.

I think we can all agree, this is not the kind of systematic persecution of Christians that happens in this country.

3. "We [church and state] both need more... evangelism"

Well, the Bible (and other sources) do record early Christians  as evangelisers, no doubt about that. But I thought the Conservatives were in favour of private-run things, because they believe private is better than public for running services at a profit, apparently. In which case... does he really want people to travel the length and breadth of the country preaching the values of the state, of the way it can all benefit us if it worked better? I'm pretty certain we have those people, and they're called "trade unionists". And I don't think Dave likes them.

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