Thursday, October 8, 2009

"In This Sign You Will Conquer"

In the year 324 Constantine became the first Christian Emperor of Rome. Immediately he, in the words of Timothy D. Barnes in his Constantine and Eusebius, "forbade the erection of cult statues, the consultation of Pagan oracles, divination of any sort, and sacrifice to the Gods under any circumstances ... precisely the activities which constituted the essence of the traditional religions of the Roman Empire .... and Constantine ordered all copies of [Porphyry's] Against the Christians to be burned, prescribing the death penalty for any who furtively retained the work." [pp. 210-211]

The ensuing relentless persecution of every single religious tradition other than Christianity (in parallel with an equally, if not even more, violent campaign against all "heretics" in the Christian flock) had, in hindsight, predictable results (although nothing like it had ever been attempted before on such a scale): In the words of historian J.B. Bury:
In a hundred years the Empire had been transformed from a state in which the immense majority of the inhabitants were devoted to pagan religions, into one in which an Emperor could say, with gross exaggeration, but without manifest absurdity, that not a pagan survived.
It is important to note how quickly Christians (1600 years ago!) jumped to the "gross exaggeration" that all other religions had simply ceased to exist!

In 1553 Richard Eden wrote, in his A Treatyse of the Newe India, that when Columbus first encountered the native inhabitants of the western hemisphere, they were "naked, without shame, religion or knowledge of God." In the same year Pedro Cieza de Leon described the north Andean indigenous peoples (of modern day Peru) as "observing no religion at all." (For references see Jonathan Z. Smith's essay Religion, Religions, Religious). I think I'm starting to see a pattern......

And just today, a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America declared that a war memorial erected (on public land) in the form of a Christian cross is perfectly acceptable as a way of honoring all war dead, regardless of their religion or lack thereof. In fact he said that any other conclusion would be "outrageous".

I think we should thank Antonin Scalia for his honesty and his forthrightness in expressing himself. He is not saying anything different form what Christians have been saying for 1600 years: theirs is the only religion that matters, and anyone who doesn't like that, well, they just don't matter.