Rome and Persecution
In this series of articles we have looked at how the early church began with practicing Jews who also met and offered sacrifice with bread and wine as Jesus had told them to. They thought of themselves as Jews. They carried on life as Jews, viewing Christ’s teaching as a continuation of what they already believed. For them Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jewish people. Paul even described himself as a Pharisee.
It was Paul who went to Rome as part of his mission to the pagans and brought Christianity to the heart of the Roman Empire which ruled much of the known world at that time. This gave the new religion a way to spread over the world. We all know that Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire and wonder how it survived.
The Romans were actually quite used to absorbing religions from places they conquered. It accommodated new cults and philosophies from different cultures, such as the Persian cult of Mithraism, the Egyptian cult of Isis and Neoplatonism, a Greek philosophical religion. These were tolerated as long as they posed no threat to order or conflicted with the worship of the emperor as a god.
Persecution of Christians began with Emperor Nero about the year 64AD. Historians believe Nero set fire to Rome and blamed the Christians to divert suspicion from himself. It was during this persecution that Peter and Paul were martyred. Nero’s brutal treatment of the Christians, he set fire to some and used them as human candles, prompted some sympathy for the persecuted people.
Historians record ten periods of persecution of Christians. There were long periods when there was no persecution and some periods of persecution were times when Christianity was illegal but did not involve searching out Christians to punish. Where Christians refused to recognise the Emperor as a deity and make sacrifices to him they were open to the suspicion of treason. Moreover, many believed that the gods protected Rome and that refusing to give sacrifice was to look for the destruction of Rome.
There were also misunderstandings about what Christians believed. Christians were often accused of cannibalism because the professed to eat Christ’s body. The practice of Agape, or love feast was thought to be about incest. Christian apologists tried to explain the true meaning of these practices and allay the fears of the Romans.
The final persecution was under Emperor Diocletian in the years 303 – 324. This is sometimes called the Great Persecution. It was extremely violent and resulted in the destruction of churches and the deaths of many Christians.
Persecution ended when the Emperor Constantine became a convert. Historians have problems with this conversion because Constantine did not rule in a particularly Christian way. He seemed to cling to some of the ways of the old religions while also being a Christian. Was he unaware of Christianity’s demand to be the only true religion or was he hedging his bets?
I remember visiting the home of a tribal chief in Ghana. The family had converted to Christianity but there was a peculiar structure at the entrance. On enquiring I was told that this was where animal sacrifices to the pagan gods were carried out. Apparently it was common for one member of the family to remain in the old religion and offer sacrifice, just in case. This was a bit of the best of both worlds I suspect. How easy is it to just throw away old beliefs? Many superstitions which still survive are rooted in old pagan beliefs.
However strong or otherwise Constantine’s Christian faith was he made it possible for Christians to exist and for the religion to grow and spread throughout the empire. Persecution seems to occur when Christian values seem to be opposed to the values of the ruling authorities. Some commentators would say that more Christians have died under persecution in the last decades than died under Roman persecutions. The current violence in the Middle East has resulted in many Christians being executed, some in a barbaric manner, and many more fleeing the persecution.
Those years of persecution didn’t stop the growth of the Church. Today we seem to be seeing a drop off in numbers of active Christians. This morning I listened to someone on the radio who wants to put a stop to Christian based assemblies in schools because less than 50% of people are believers. We might be forgiven for thinking the move away from Christian values is accelerating. After all, if we banned everything that less than 50% of the people were involved in there wouldn’t be much left, including democratic elections.
Why are people being put off religion? Perhaps it has been given an aura of negativism. Some may blame the media for inaccurate reporting others may look at the Church and hoe it projects itself. How many people grew up being told not to do this or that or they would go to the ‘Bad Fire’? Were many of us taught that our role here was to escape going to Hell? I think many people have the wrong idea about the Church. Just as the Romans did not understand what Christian teaching meant I think many Catholics today don’t understand what the Church is saying.
The Church’s message is really quite simple. Christ set up the Church to save mankind, not to condemn them. The guidelines the Church must follow were set by Jesus when he said “Love God and love your neighbour.” That can not be construed as being negative. The Church must work for the good of mankind. That means Christians and all those who are not Christians. It’s all about bringing everyone safely to Heaven, not Hell.
This month the Church has opened a new Holy Year. This is the Year of Mercy. That doesn’t seem difficult to accept but it might prove difficult to put into practice. We start by recognising God’s mercy towards us. When we look at the great gifts God has given us and recognise the mercy he shows to us sinners we see an example of what is expected of us.
That’s the difficult part. Not only do we need to give thanks for God’s mercy to us but we must be merciful to others. That’s not a problem with those we love or even just like a bit. The difficult part is being merciful and forgiving to those who harm us or even hate us. How can we forgive those who have hurt us? How can we bring ourselves to forgive those who mean us harm? That’s not normal human behaviour.
We will need to start trying to behave a bit more like God than man. It’s obviously impossible for us to do that unaided. Where can we look for that help? Our only recourse is in prayer. When we are faced with a difficult situation we can turn to God and try to explain our problem. Don’t expect a voice booming out of a bush, a phone call or even an email from God. God doesn’t work like that. But that is real prayer, not reciting words that we say without thinking but telling God what we are thinking. Since I’m not God I can’t explain how this works but that is our path to finding real mercy in our own hearts.