Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Why the Fall?

The speaker Sunday quoted Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) on the peaceful nature of the first-century Christians:

“It was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes,” Gibbon wrote. I included that and three similar quotations in I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses: Searching for the Why in the Statecraft chapter. I chatted up the speaker after the program and he had about fifteen such quotes.

What he did not say is that Gibbon did not admire Christians for their course, as the out-of-context quote might suggest. It was not a plus for him, as it is for us. It was a minus. It is what he holds largely responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, that innovative development of human rule he champions and is sorry to see go.

Here are the other three quotes presented in Don’t Know Why:

“A careful review of all the information available goes to show that, until the time of Marcus Aurelius [121-180 C.E.], no Christian became a soldier; and no soldier, after becoming a Christian, remained in military service.” (Barnes: The Rise of Christianity),. “It will be seen presently that the evidence for the existence of a single Christian soldier between 60 and about 165 A.D. is exceedingly slight. . . . Up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius at least, no Christian would become a soldier after his baptism.” (Cadoux: The Early Church and the World). “The behavior of the Christians was very different from that of the Romans . . . Since Christ had preached peace, they refused to become soldiers.” (Platt & Drummond: Our World Through the Ages)

They’re not positives for Gibbon. They’re negatives. They sap the will of the country. Let people drop out and who’s going to fight for the Fatherland? Notice that Gibbon goes the farthest in uncovering what Christians would not do. It’s not just soldiering they abstained from. He extends their abstinence to being “magistrates” or “princes.” It ruined the Empire, he says, to have vast swaths of people turn their attention elsewhere, consumed no longer with the nature of the king but with the nature of God and Christ and of the interplay between them. They weren’t taking a stand against the government. They weren’t refusing to obey it laws—in fact, they were pretty good at obeying laws and not stirring up mischief. But they weren’t pulling for the then system-of-things, and this is what Gibbon laments. Rome would in time encounter invaders whose people were 100% behind the cause of human rule (theirs), and then it was goodby for Rome.

So Gibbon didn’t like Christianity. It torpedoed what he thought was the grander project of an innovative system of human rule. Of course, it soon morphed (apostatized) to become less of what he did not like to embrace more of what he did like. In time and by degrees, Christians veered from staying ‘no part of the world’ to decide that they were the ones to fix the world by any means possible. If political maneuvering and wars were among those means possible, so be it. Constantine converted to morphed Christianity, transformed it from persecuted minority to in-time persecuting majority. He did not get baptized until on his deathbed, after he got all that warring out of his system, so even then was the notion that Christians renounce the violence of the age. It was common at the time, says J. Rufus Fears (below), for persons to postpone baptism till the last moment and undergo it as a sort of final cleansing act—a far cry from churches in the present day who perform it on babies as a sort of introductory cleansing act.

2DA2789F-8898-4A8B-9DB8-B6DD38CA60BDGibbon’s condemnation of Christianity is found to various degrees in countries of the here and now. Western ones, by and large, allow religion to be religion. They grant freedom of worship as a fundamental right. But other governments are more machiavellian. Yes, you can have your religion, they say, but religion must know its place. It must not only be subservient to ruling powers, but must advocate for them. For many human governments, and many students of human government, it is not ‘he who is not against us is for us.’ It is ‘he who is not for us is against us.’ Anti-cultists in particular build upon the notion that it is wrong to depart from the mainstream of rule by human efforts. Any serious consideration of a ‘God’s kingdom’ that calls the shots is disagreeable to them and, they would have you believe, to you. The human experiment of self-rule is what must consume people. It’s wrong to sit it out, they maintain,

(A History of Freedom, J Rufus Fears, Lecture 11:  Gibbon on Rome’s Decline and Fall)

To be continued…here

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The Forest in Symbolism and History

Could this really happen?

“Absalom was riding on a mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a large tree, and his head got entangled in the big tree, so that he was suspended in midair while the mule he had been riding kept going.” (2 Samuel 18:9)

That’s one bad boy of a tree is all I can say!

Maybe the problem was the mule. 9966A8AB-262E-4143-B56A-46A12C52ABD9 “A mule will labor ten years, willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once,” wrote William Faulkner. Absalom’s mule may not have kicked him, but it sure did do him dirty, hanging him up so hit man Joab could off him.

Maybe it was was the forest. You ‘can’t see the forest for the trees,’ but in this case Absalom can’t see the tree for the forest. 20,000 combatants died and “the forest devoured more of the people than the sword did on that day,” says the verse just prior (8). Maybe it was one of those ‘Lord of the Rings’ forests.

‘Lord of the Rings’ forests are built on a solid tradition of forests being treacherous, even places where the Devil hangs out! 116BEC57-458D-4F1F-B90F-A5EF81889517Mistress Higgins is forever trying to lure folks into the forest for unsavory shenanigans with ‘the Black Man.’ (The author of the Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne, modeled her after a real person, Ann Higgins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656.) That forest was one foreboding place, where “the boughs were tossing heavily above their heads; while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forebode evil to come.”

But at the same time, push deeply enough into the forest and break freeeeee! or at least settle for that illusion.

Backward to the settlement, thou sayest!” Hester remonstrates with Dimmesdale. “Yes; but onward, too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white mans tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest …

Guelzo (without quoting Hawthorne—that’s mine) points to early writers of American history with this Janus-view of the forest. (Janus—the ‘two-faced’ god facing both left and right) Fearful, on the one hand, but promising on the other. Though the ‘promising’ is for an ‘unpromising’ reason. Press into the forest deep enough and you can escape your own screw-ups from the past! The early American view of history according to Guelzo? “Don’t have any, don’t need any, don’t want any.”.  In new America, the “human experiment” can begin anew!

(“Gimme that fruit!” Adam said. “Let the ‘human experiment’ begin!” ‘No, no, no,’ God tacitly says. ‘You’ll screw it all up! Trust me on this, you do not want to usurp the duty of telling good from bad!’ ‘Nah,’ comes the reply—what can go wrong?)

It’s not winners who came to America. It was losers, those driven out for religious reasons, crushed by financial reasons, or refugees from ‘man dominating man to his injury’ reasons. The first settlers “were radical Puritans who were looking for a way out from under the thumb screws of the Church of England. It was only after every other avenue of escape [was] closed off to them that . . . they turned to those vast . . . countries of America” (Guelzo) And “looking over the bow of the Mayflower what could they see [but a] hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men. Why, said [William] Bradford, even the air, diet, and drinking of water in America would infect their bodies with sore sicknesses and grievous diseases.”

That forest was a dangerous place, make no mistake. It remained ever dangerous in waves of westward expansion, though fear was mixed with growing confidence as humans invented, and then led, with bulldozers Upon reaching the coast and finally conquering the forest, what remains?

“Space—the final frontier,” intones James T. Kirk, introducing a show that would have been dead on arrival were it not for Lucille Ball. The forests are all conquered, some trees rounded up for a ‘tree museum’ for which you must pay a dollar and a half just to see ‘em! (Joni Mitchell) Space is the new frontier. Boldly going where no man has gone before! What is discovered out there? Guys that look just like us, save for pointed ears. Is that evolution great stuff or what!? Pour me a double-shot of it!

What do aliens gain from their new contact with humans? “One damn minute,” Spock pleasantly responds to one of Captain Kirk’s commands. He’s learned to swear! He had just spent the entire 45 previous episodal minutes on 20th-century earth; he had time-traveled there for some reason and Kirk had told him to use profanity. Keep tuque pulled over ears, swear, and they’ve never know you’re not one of them, he tells the Vulcan.

What a stupid, brain-dead, ignorant stab at science fiction prophesy! How unrealistic! However, had he said, ‘One f**ken minute,’ the forecast would have been spot-on. That’s the course ‘evolution’ has taken.

They didn’t learn that in no forest. No way. They were in all their civilized glory when they adopted that new norm.

To be continued:

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