Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 17

Continued from last week…

In 313, when the emperor Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration, he started the ball rolling to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The process was complete in 380, when emperor Theodosius issued Edict of Thessalonica. Christianity had been a persecuted sect that claimed to be a variation of the religion of Israel. It was founded by Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. His followers said He had risen from the dead and some even claimed that He was God in the flesh. Now this rather strange little sect had managed in just over three centuries to become the official religion of the Romans.  Not only was Christianity the religion of the Romans, but a certain form of Christianity, Catholicism, was the religion of the Romans, and Catholicism came with all the baggage of a God who was three persons, yet one God, and that God had established an organization with bishops, priests and deacons in leadership with a special emphasis on the bishop of Rome, who claimed to be the spiritual and theological heir to saints Peter and Paul.

Things had come a long way since the days of squabbling Israelite sects. The first squabbling followers of Jesus had become the Official Religion of the Romans. They still managed to squabble but now the emperors of Constantinople joined the squabble. The Germanic peoples who overran the western half of the Roman Empire around 425 AD were Christians, just not Catholic Christians. They could not care less about the bishop of Rome and they thought the trinity was nonsense. They were followers of Arius, who believed Jesus was really swell, just not equal to God the Father. When the German barbarians set up their new kingdoms in Spain and France and North Africa, they had a hard time controlling things.

The contentious followers of the Humble Carpenter of Nazareth were not easy to govern. The Germans had invaded the Roman Empire, not to destroy it, but to enjoy it. They liked Roman amenities, like wine and olive oil and white bread and bathing, far better than beer, bacon fat, bugs and barley bread. If the new German aristocracy converted to Catholic Christianity it might make acceptance by the Romans easier, which is precisely what they did. And, when the king was re-baptized Catholic, you had better believe that his court, accepted the religion of the Romans.

In times past, individuals had made a decision that Jesus was the Messiah. Now the decision was made for you, if you were a Roman, or a Visigoth or a Burgundian, or a Frank. In 785 AD Charlemagne, the king of the Franks decreed that, “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.”

Something similar happened in Russia. Prince Vladimir of Kiev went religion shopping and chose Byzantine Christianity because the liturgy was so beautiful and, thankfully, Christianity did not prohibit the drinking of alcohol of which the Russians were, and still are, quite fond. Vladimir was baptized, married the sister of the Roman Byzantine emperor of Constantinople and upon returning to Kiev, marched the entire population down to the Dnieper River, starting with his 12 sons and the boyars (nobles). The wooden idols of the Russians were either burned or and thrown in the river as was the statue of the main Russian god, Perun. In his enthusiasm for Christianity Vladimir even baptized the gods! The Kievan Russians were now Christians, whether they liked it or not.

What a lucky break for the Romans in their shrinking empire! The Roman state, threatened in the west by the Germans and in the east by those Turks and Arabs who were not Christian (There are still many Turkic and Arabic speakers who have retained their Christianity despite a millennium of persecution) suddenly had a boatload of allies. The sect of Christians first became the Religion of the Romans. Now it was the religion of the Roman state as well the Frankish, Gothic, and eventually of the Russian states, as well as many others. Each of them came to think of themselves as uniquely chosen by God to do His will on earth by slaughtering his enemies who, coincidentally, were the enemies of the state.

To serve the interests of the state was to serve God. To refuse to serve the state was to refuse to serve God, and hence both treason and blasphemy. It was never the tradition of the church to burn heretics and blasphemers. It was most certainly the practice of the state to burn traitors. And so the horrors began. Enemies of the state were executed or expelled, and so Jews continued their wandering, first to Spain, and then, when expelled by the non-Christian Almohads around 1150, they fled to France, then from France to the Rhine valley, then to Poland and Russia, always on the edge of the society.

Oddly, the Jews of Italy were the safest Jews in Christendom until the Second World War and the Jewish community of Rome exists to this day. The popes may have said unfortunate things but usually protected the Jews of Italy, as did Pope Pius XII in the Second World War. (C.f. Rabbi David Dahlen: The Myth of Hitler’s Pope) The Jews had become the un-chosen people, a stateless nation, once chosen, now rejected.

How does one convince ten or twenty national ethnic groupings that they are each God’s new chosen people? Easy! You have a pope! The Papacy managed to hold all these chosen nations and their anointed sovereigns together in a crazy quilt of chosen-ness by cobbling together a super-nation called Christendom. The aggression and arrogance of kings were limited by the threat of excommunication. No one could quite get the upper hand, because “all must kiss the foot of the Roman Pontiff” or so says the Dictatus Papae, published by Pope Gregory VII in 1075. The Dictatus is a list of twenty-seven statements pointing out what sovereigns owed the Pope. In addition to kissing the foot of the pope, the Dictatus said the pope may depose emperors, and that “…he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.” This meant that the pope could dissolve any government in Christendom and release the subordinate of any emperor, king or nobleman from their obligation of obedience to the local authority.

Amazingly, people took all this seriously. It meant that there was some non-violent international control over the avarice and aggression of the upper classes. The system worked, at least until the Reformation in 1525, when certain German and French theologians decided that the papacy was useless. With no pope to threaten excommunication, the monarchs of Europe were free to impose their superior chosen-ness on their neighbors. Europe dissolved into a century of war in which half the population of certain areas perished. Strangely, Europe lost its religion during the wars of religion. To be Protestant, Catholic, or none of the above was no longer a matter of choice. Your religion was a matter of a political unit that was hell bent on proving its superiority to those a little less chosen than itself.

The mayhem started in 1525 when the German theologians reinvented Christianity and dumped the papacy. The Great Peasants' War or Great Peasants' Revolt devastated Central Europe from 1524 to 1525. The peasants decided that, if the priests and aristocrats didn’t need popes and bishops, they didn’t need the aristocrats and priests. They slaughtered thousands of the German governing class. The governing class who, after all, had the money and the weapons returned the favor by slaughtering perhaps 300,000 of the peasants.

This was just a warm up. A century later, the Thirty Years War, punctuated with bouts of witch burning and cannibalism, killed about a third of the population of large parts of Europe. It started as a religious conflict when the Protestant town council of Prague threw the representatives of the Catholic emperor out a window (This is called the “Defenestration of Prague.” You’ve got to love the name, no?) 

It started out Protestant versus Catholic, but by the end Catholic France was allied with protestant Sweden against Catholic Austria. The war spilled over from Germany into France, Holland, England and the Americas.

When it was all over the nation-state was supreme, Christendom was gone and 11 million people were dead. No pope got his foot kissed by any monarch any more. The worship of God faded into the worship of the state. The state was no longer chosen by God. It was just chosen. European Christianity was completely separated from the idea of conversion and started to die.  And the Jews? They were not part of any chosen state no matter how hard they pretended.

Next week: Just when things couldn’t possibly get worse…


  1. Father Could you please comment on the following: A Bishop recently played a ukulele during the homily at a Confirmation Mass that was held at Assumption Grotto in the Detroit Archdiocese.