A Lesson From History
We in America resemble early second century Rome. Not in the sense of suffering overt persecution, but in the question of our identity. Who are the Christians? What are we up to and what are we about?
In the year 111, a Roman aristocrat named Pliny became governor of an imperial territory in Asia Minor. He was immediately confronted with a problem: what to do with a group of people he discovered called “Christians,” those who followed someone named Christ?
In his letters, Pliny identifies these people with the word for a trade or professional association. The Emperor was concerned about the political clout of such associations, so to be thus identified brought Christians under scrutiny and possible indictment for criminal activity.
Pliny identifies Christians a second way: as a benevolent society that buried its deceased members and offered charity to their widows and orphans. Lastly, he identifies them a third way, negatively, by calling them a superstition. The word did not mean then what it means now. In Pliny’s time, a superstition was any foreign cult opposed to the official religion, which was Roman. Emperor Trajan advised Pliny not to single these people out for special treatment, nor to accept anonymous accusations against them, a fairly enlightened opinion despite the fact that numerous Christians were executed on the way to this decision. Trajan’s advice held sway, with occasional bouts of persecution, till the middle of the third century when the most severe persecution in early history was launched against Christians.
Pliny’s inquiries forced Christians to define themselves as a group in society. This was actually a favor of sorts, since it sharpened the view of the Christians about their own identity. They said to him that they were an ecclesia (from which we get “ecclesiastical,” and a word already familiar from the new testament). This was an identifiable commodity in the Roman Empire.
An ecclesia was a political assembly composed of free people. Slaves were not members of the Roman ecclesia, for example, nor were women. Foreigners could become so if they held Roman citizenship – as did Paul the Apostle. The Christian ecclesia was different, however, because it embraced slaves and women and transcended boundaries of culture and nation. Because Christians were citizens of what Jesus had called the Ruling (or Kingdom) of God, they saw themselves as a society distinct from Roman governance. This was problematic because it meant they swore allegiance to another Lord – which Caesar would not tolerate. It led, ultimately, to persecution.
So the question remains today, who are the Christians?
Are we a political organization? Not in the same sense as you find Christian Democrats in Europe. Are we a benevolent society? Indeed. We care for our own and for others; we organized insurance companies and societies to care for orphans and widows. We are in the history of many retirement homes, orphanages, hospitals, and other charitable institutions.
We are, above all, an ecclesia – just as the early Christians defined themselves. This led to persecution in many countries around the world, most notably in communist regimes. We continue to pray for Christians who suffer for their faith in countries today.
Positively, to say we are an ecclesia means that we are freed for love and service through the power of the resurrection. We are the Easter people. In the early societies love was the hallmark of Christians, which means it was in short supply in those societies. Let it remain our hallmark. Let love shine forth today as in ages of the past. Let it be the sign that we choose life.
published 01 May 09