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Jesus' Moral Revolution

This talk was presented to 50 high schoolers yesterday. They are attending the Faith Ascent Base Camp, to prepare themselves intellectually for college. I draw heavily from Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart. The link to the video is here. Start at about 5 minutes in.

The Jesus Revolution

It hardly needs to be said aloud that the history of Christendom has sadly failed to live up to the beautiful vision of life with God proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. Not only their critics, but Christians themselves – from Dante to Cal Thomas - have famously derided the cooperation of the church in political malfeasance of all kinds, the cruelty of its persecutions, and its support of godless social institutions such as slavery. We ought not to hesitate in fully admitting and repenting of these things in some misguided attempt to save our reputation. As Rachel Denhollander has said in recent days, “Jesus doesn’t need your protection, he needs your obedience.”

It’s odd, though, that the opposite point, though far more historically stunning, does need to be said aloud. While sin grieves us, it ought not surprise us. Human beings vie for power over one another and slaughter and enslave their enemies, and they always have. If anything, we should be surprised that anyone questions the ethical merits of such behavior. It’s not immediately obvious why the strong shouldn’t rule the weak, or perhaps even better, simply exterminate them. The exceptions to this view in the ancient, pagan world that preceded the rise of Christianity were few and far between. We remember the arguments of Socrates and Cicero with reverence; these were pagan men who seemed to grasp something of a universal notion of human justice. But their creeds, however lofty, made no palpable difference in the behavior of their compatriots. Despite their high philosophy, the Greeks could not stop killing one another. Despite Rome’s admirable system of law, it was crushed under the weight of its own corrupt empire.

My thesis today is that the most shocking shift in world history, the one thing that could truly be said to pivot the whole world away from one way of life to something wholly new, is what I’ll call The Jesus Revolution. I call the morality of Jesus a revolution for a few reasons. First, Jesus presented a vision of life with God that was so blindingly different from the pagan world he inhabited, that many of his ideas are not simply strange to that mindset, but practically unthinkable within it. Swimming, as we do, in the cultural ocean of Christianity, or at the very least, post-Christianity, it’s extremely difficult for us to remember just how absurd the teachings of Jesus really must have sounded to the men around him. Secondly, while one can find hints or elements of a morality that sounds like Jesus’s in a few other systems such as stoicism, Sikhism, Pure Land Buddhism, or Hare Krishna, in no other case besides Jesus’s were such absurd ideas actually carried out in a way that not only spread like wildfire, but also changed both the zeitgeist, (the spirit of the age), and the real day-to-day practices of members of all classes.

To make this case, I need to show three things:

  1. What the morality of the ancient and pagan world was really like,

  2. How thoroughly that old morality was discredited by the deeds of Jesus and His church, and

  3. That the failures of historical Christendom do not undermine the claim that Jesus really ushered in a moral revolution.

I. The Ancient Pagan World

Okay, so first things first. What is the best way to give you a sense of the morality of the ancient, pagan world of the Greeks and Romans? I can’t cover every aspect of pagan life, so I’ll pick one that really brings home the philosophical shift that occurs with the advent of Christianity.

Here is a letter written in the 29th year of Caeser, from husband to wife:

“Hilarion to Alis, heartiest greetings, and to my dear Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still even now in Alexandria. Do not worry if when all the others return I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you. If-good luck to you!-you bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it.”

Here is the pronouncement of Plato concerning children that don’t fit in to his eugenics scheme:

“The principle has been already laid down that the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible; and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings on must be a secret which the rulers only know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as the guardians may be termed, breaking out into rebellion. Yes -- The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.”

A Greek poem claims that “everybody raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich”. A Greek historian, Polybius, records that the Greek civilization was overcome by the Roman because the population dropped precipitously after men became so lazy and self-important that they either wouldn’t marry at all, or would only raise one or two of the many offspring in order to keep all the wealth together. In Sparta, the government checked newborns for health and strength, and then commanded they be either reared or exposed depending on their fitness, and usefulness to the state. A 2nd century Roman doctor created a long list of signs of whether a child is “suited by nature for rearing” or not.

There is no shortage of evidence that ancient Greeks and Romans “exposed” infants that were either deformed or weak, unwanted because female, unwanted because of their inconvenient parentage, or just because of cost. In truth, the practice is so widespread in all pagan societies that historians made particular note of the fact that two groups, the Etruscans and the Hebrews, actually reared all the babies that were born to them.

II: Jesus' Moral Revolution

Church fathers such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria express moral dismay at the practice of exposing newborns, the latter decrying the common practice of wealthy Roman women of preferring fancy pets over their own offspring as preferring “irrational to rational creatures”.

It’s tempting to condemn such practices and jump straight to comparisons with the practices of our own time. But we would miss the revolution if we did. Clement’s point is well-taken, though it may sound strangely philosophical to our ears. The reason that it is morally wrong to prefer an irrational creature – a pet – to a rational one – a human – is because Christians began to spread the Jewish idea that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. They understood this claim according to the philosophical categories they were trained in. Human beings, whether potentially or actually, possess the ability to reason, to make a judgment, and are thus moral beings – just like God. This is why people are not pets, but animals are. Animals are conditioned to love us or hate us, but human beings, although they do respond to conditioning also, are capable of rethinking their own conditioning and going a different way. They have “liberum arbitrium”, sometimes translated as free will, but actually meaning “freedom of judgment”. This reminds me of the hilarious, satirical book of daily affirmations I saw once. One day’s affirmation read, “Today I will nourish my relationship with my pets, since they cannot leave me.” It’s pathetic, right? But God created beings who were, like him, able to reason and choose, even though this made them capable of leaving Him. That is why we are not just His pets, but this is also the reason that it is always wrong to kill innocent human beings, at any age. Beings created in the image and likeness of God, playing a part in the determination of their own eternal destiny, capable of a personal relationship with the Eternal Creator of the Universe, are beings with an inherent, undeniable, inviolable, dignity and value. Their value does not depend on their usefulness to the State, their contribution or cost to the family, their capacity for economic production, or any other factor. It depends on the kind of thing that they are – a human being.

This goes far to explain the behavior of Jesus on several occasions. He seems hell-bent (if you’ll pardon the expression) on denying the worldly assumption, even among the Jewish leaders, that wealth and health were a sign of God’s blessing. Rather, every person is invited into the kingdom of God! The deformed, the meek, the persecuted, the justice-obsessed, the morally compromised, and the distraught, suffering people are invited! Why? Because they are human beings. Human beings are not just inherently valuable because of what they were created to be, but also what they are created for. Those who ally themselves with Jesus will become like him, even, the Bible says, to be called ‘sons of God’. They will participate in the life of God Himself. It’s a destiny so lofty, one must be careful how one describes it so as not to cross over into blasphemy!

Pretend for a moment, that you are an ancient pagan. Such a declaration of the eternal worth and status of every human person should strike you as utterly absurd. First of all, love for human beings is far, far below the status of the god of the philosophers – a detached mind incapable of being affected at all. Aristotle called God “Thought Thinking Itself”. The phrase “God is Love” would have been utterly meaningless to him. Secondly, it looks obviously impracticable: who is going to rear all of these poor, deformed, unwanted children? And even if such resources existed, what could possibly motivate us to expend them in this way? A society based on the values of Jesus, it appears, would never get off the ground at all, and even if it did, would be bound to fail. The humility and charity of the Christian is not just new. It is unthinkable. It is absurd. It is dangerous. The pagan emperors were right to feel threatened by these Christian upstarts, even when their ranks were few. The hostile emperor Julian lamented that “It is [the Christians] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done most to spread their atheism.” (Remember that Christians were called atheists because they rejected the gods of the city and of the Roman pantheon.) And again he complains to one of his pagan priests, “It is a disgrace that these impious Galilaeans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” In fact, Christians rescued the babies exposed by pagan parents and picked up sick pagans out of the road where they had been thrown by their families in order to care for them. During the medieval period, the ‘hospitaller’ movement began, in which rich land-owning Christians would donate huge tracts of land and large portions of their personal fortune to open hospitals, until every major city had one. The Knights of St. John were given the decree of DuPuis, called “How Our Lords the Sick Should be Received and Served”. The whole church, and particularly the monastaries, were referred to as the “patrimony [that is, the inheritance] of the poor”. A 19th century historian, generally hostile to the church, W.E.H. Lackey, claims that is “commitment to the poor, both in spirit and in sheer scope , constituted something new in the western world and represented a dramatic improvement over the standards of classical antiquity.”

Allow me to be especially controversial today by calling out some of my fellow Protestants, who I am afraid have allowed themselves to be fooled by Enlightenment self-congratulation. In our zeal to point out the failures of Catholicism we have often ignored the whole medieval history of the church, (remember that Protestantism isn’t officially a thing till the 1500’s, right?). We have failed to acknowledge the moral revolution carried on by those monks who received anyone of any social class into their ranks, preserved the learning of the centuries with their manuscripts, and made the care of the poor and the sick their daily business. In their humility, they worked in the fields themselves, all the way up to the abbot of the monastery, to be with the very peasants for whom they cared. They used the benefits of leisure and learning with which they were blessed to cultivate the wilderness, advance science, both practical and theoretical, and advance civil and international law. They invented new forms of irrigation, water-power systems, and techniques for improving cattle breeds. Every serious medieval historian today will affirm what I’ve just said, but what a sad commentary on our historical ignorance that we continue to buy popular histories that play into our stereotypes of the ‘dark ages’.

I can't possibly cover it all in this short amount of time, but suffice it to say that the notion of the human person as an individual and not just as a part of something else is a Jewish and Christian idea. The notion that there are two kingdoms, one attentive to earthly peace and another to spiritual well-being, and thus that the emperor is not God AND that he must answer to God, is a Jewish and Christian idea. The notion that we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, are Jewish and Christian ideas. They don't exist in the pagan world because the underlying metaphysics, the underlying understanding of reality as created by a reasonable and deeply loving being, didn't exist for them. And that's why all of the ideas I just mentioned above would have sounded so absurd, and revolutionary in the most derogatory sense of the term, to pagans. These ideas of human dignity, natural law, and the preference for the poor, reflect a reality that they denied.

III. The Failures of Christendom

Nowadays, soaked in the achievements of the Christian West, it has become vogue to turn around and, utilizing those values, critique the very civilization from whence they sprung. And why not? We OUGHT to answer for our failures. I can't address all of them here, but many obvious ones spring to mind: slavery, religious wars, witch-hunts, science. It's important to keep in mind while addressing these that the narrative we've often received about them comes from a particular kind of Enlightenment account of history - that the Middle Ages were a loss of the wonderful, tolerant paganism of the classical period, and only after the religious superstitions were sloughed off could we emerge into the light of Reason. But no one buys this story anymore - not even secular historians hostile to the faith. Instead, it's now universally acknowledged among those who actually study the period, that the high middle ages, from the Carolingian empire in 800 AD and onward, was an incredibly fruitful period in philosophy, the sciences, architecture, banking, international law, and many other areas, without which, the great accomplishments of the Enlightenment period would never have been possible. In fact, slavery disappeared almost entirely from the West for 1000 years! Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the 379 A.D. that slavery is condemnable as an institution, because "at what price can one purchase the image of God?" Read some of the anti-federalists railing against the accommodation that our Constitution made for slavery. These men knew full well that they were compromising with evil; but this should not just be assumed! There are very few condemnations of slavery found in any pagan literature - not even in Cicero himself, who as a pagan Stoic, developed the notion of the natural law and the moral equality of human beings quite a bit.

How many of those who condemn the church for its treatment of Galileo are aware that he and Pope Urban were just two guys who went from being in a bromance to being frenemies, and that this, and not Galileo's scientific claims, was the source of his condemnation. The church was the source of scientific claims, since the universities were the centers of learning and they were created by the church.

You all won't remember this, but back in the 90's there was a hysteria about satanic ritual abuse. This emerged at the same time as the notion of repressed memories, and through a bizarre succession of events, counselors began suggesting to children that terrible things were happening to them that they just couldn't remember. Everyone was in a panic and many totally innocent people went to prison, but were later released. The famous witch-hunts we all read about were actually a very similar phenomenon. They were spurred on by popular superstitions and mass condemnation. The church actually had to step in and explain to people that they were dreaming this up, that trials had to be conducted properly, and that most magic is just trickery.

The religious wars can be particularly confusing, since it's often unclear whether people were fighting to change religions, or changing religions so that they could fight over territory and title. Sadly, I'm afraid the latter accounts for most of the blood spilled in the wars of religion. But even if this were not the case, the actual blood shed during these wars cannot hold a candle to the sheer and total destruction brought on by the advent of the Enlightenment's favorite offspring: the modern nation-state. You see, the thoroughly Christian civilization of the early church and the middle ages could never have given rise to the nationalist wars and ideological slaughter of the modern period, for one very good reason - power was distributed. The principle of subsidiarity means that what can be ruled at the local level ought to be, and so on. Church and state vied for power, as did nobles and kings, merchants and guilds, families and family members, and many other of the myriad intermediate institutions of the Christian West. It was only the pure calculative reason of the modern enlightenment that could usher in the notion of the centralized modern nation-state, one, unified entity making a monopoly claim on the legitimate use of coercion. This entity is swimming in blood. In the 20th century alone, Over 100 million civilians were starved, frozen, gassed, and marched to their deaths by their own atheist governments. The church was swept out of the way as a passe tradition standing in the way of human progress.

I can't treat any of these troubling episodes with the subtlety they deserve in this short time. Suffice it to say that our grasp of Jesus' moral revolution is hindered by several things: a romanticization of the ancient pagan world that is plainly inaccurate, an ignorance of the early church fathers as well as the history of the middle ages, and an absolute refusal to own up to the devastating effects of secularism in our own age. We easily commit the "Nirvana Fallacy" when we compare our own failures to some imagined time or place where people don't sin against each other. Rather, placing the accomplishments of Christ and his church into real historical context, we can see that we have often failed, but that through orthodoxy (right belief) and even better ortho-praxis (that is, right practices), Christians have entirely changed the moral conversation, and have been the source of present help in times of trouble. I want to leave you with one last thought. As I said before, there’s something more to Jesus than simple human kindness or even radical declarations that are all are precious and invited into the kingdom of God. It’s not impossible to find similar platitudes elsewhere, though they’re very rare. There’s something about Jesus himself that caused people to be willing to die in horrible torturous ways rather than renounce him. Something about Jesus made it make sense to them to get sick and die from plague by taking care of the very enemies that had persecuted them. Without the sacrifices of the martyrs, perhaps the ancient world would have nodded politely at this new cult and just walked on. It was the willingness of his followers to become poor, to lose their social status, to upend social expectations, and ultimately, to die, that caused this ragtag outfit to spread like wildfire through the Roman empire. Something about Jesus attracted women and slaves and the outcast, and under what earthly circumstances can we imagine such a movement actually lasting at all, besides permeating an entire culture, and now, the whole world? As Lewis has said, some things are just so strange, they’ve got to be true.

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