Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 16

Continued from last week…

Remember the Germanic tribes that came thundering across the frozen Rhine river (maybe) around 400 AD? They did quite well for themselves. They carved up the western Roman empire, establishing kingdoms in France, Spain, North Africa and Italy. By this time most of them were Christians. There was a problem as far as the Catholics of the western Roman Empire were concerned. 

The Germans were Arian (not to be confused with “Aryan,” the made-up race of Hitler and his friends. Our Arians were the followers of the crackpot Egyptian Christian priest Arius who, around 300AD, claimed there was no such thing as a Trinity). Christians who believed that Jesus though really, really special was not eternal, but created in time. The people over whom new German kings ruled were Trinitarian, Catholic Christians and could be troublesome. The King of the Franks converted to Catholicism, but more about him later. Enter Reccared, the Visigoth king of Spain as well as part of southern France from 586 to 601. He decided to renounce Arianism and accept Catholicism.

The Third Council of Toledo (Spain, not Ohio) met in King Reccared's name in May 589, and there his declaration accepting Catholicism was read aloud. The Catholic bishop, St. Leander preached the closing sermon, which his little brother St. Isidore called the “…triumph of the Church upon the conversion of the Goths”. Some say that King Reccared celebrated the triumph of Catholicism by forcing Jews and Arians to convert to mainline Catholicism. Others blame St. Leander and the Catholic bishops for the new anti-Jewish attitude in Spain. Jews had been guaranteed certain freedoms in the Church laws of Spain, but after the council of Toledo those freedoms were increasingly limited. Reccared’s involvement in the new anti-Semitism of the young Spain is disputed by modern historians, but what do they know anyway?

No matter whose fault it was, things got a lot tougher for Jews in Spain. The important reason as far as this disquisition goes, is the why of the new anti-Semitism. The why is quite simple: replacement theology, at least that’s the theory of the brilliant David Goldman in his 2011 book How Civilizations Die.  The theory goes like this. In order to sweet talk King Reccared into becoming the new protector of the Church, it was aired about that the Visigoths, at least the Catholic ones, were the new “chosen people” of God. You can’t have two chosen peoples. God must have dumped one and taken up with the other. This arrangement had already been hinted at in the Christianization of the Roman Empire, but since the empire was just that, an empire, you didn’t really have a people so much as a collection of peoples. The emperors however already saw themselves as the chosen vessels of God.

Emperor Constantine who began the Christian-ization of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century had himself buried in the church of the Holy Apostles, the idea being that he was also an apostle of God chosen to do God’s work on earth.  The plan was to gather relics of all of the Apostles in the church so that Constantine could spend eternity in the company of his fellow apostles. They only managed to get Saint Andrew, Saint Luke and Saint Timothy, only one of whom is actually an apostle, but the point had been made. In the Orthodox Church, Constantine is still called isapostolos” or in English “the equal of the Apostles.”

In the western kingdoms it was possible to go the whole route. Baptize a king, and you baptize a whole nation. The chosen people was us! It didn’t matter if I believed it. The king believed it. We believed it. Depending on whose bread was to be buttered, the Franks, the Burgundians the Lombards, the Vandals the Visigoths as well the Ostrogoths, and any other Goth who managed to conquer a country and wear a crown could be the chosen people, and it anointed sovereign, a New Israel and a new Solomon or David.

Since then nations have regularly decided that they are the new chosen people. The Spanish, the English, the Irish, the list is rather long. The Germans and the Russians were late to assume the mantle of chosen-ness. They decided they were chosen nations sometime in the nineteenth century and they did so with a vengeance. The problem with being a chosen nation was that there were always those pesky Jews, who used to be chosen. Best to be rid of them, no? It is interesting to me that one cannot find the phrase “New Israel” in the New Testament. There is new covenant and new Jerusalem, but no new Israel.

In its beginning, the Church grew by individual conversion claiming that one could be adopted into the people of Israel by baptism. All one needed now was water, buckets and a tribe of barbarians whose king told them to go along with the whole thing. Up until that point one joined Israel by personal conversion. The Gentile, the non-Jew, could join himself to Israel of God by baptism. In effect he joined a people. He became member of the tribe of Christians as Josephus the Jewish historian of the first century called us. However, when you move from God’s choice of persons as members of his chosen people the whole thing changes.

There was no more tribe of Christians there were the Christian tribes of the Vandals or the Visigoths or the Franks, who happened to be the first to take the plunge into the Catholic, Roman, non-Arian baptismal pool. The Franks had great names like Kings Chlodiwg, Sigebert, Chilperic, Queen Brunhilda and Queen Fredegunda, who couldn’t stand each other. I mention them just because these are really cool names. King Chlodwig, however, is important for our story.

He was the first of the Arian German kings to convert to Catholicism, admittedly under pressure from his Catholic wife Queen Clothilda. He realized that it could be a win-win situation. The pope in Rome was being browbeaten by the emperor in Constantinople, and Chlodwig or as you may know him, Clovis was being browbeaten by his Romano-Gallic nobility in what is now France. When he became a Catholic, the pope got a protector and Clovis got legitimacy in France. It was smiles all around. The dynasty of Clovis eventually gave way to the dynasty that included Charlemagne, God’s chosen monarch par excellence! The Franks slowly became the French who talked about the deeds of God through the French (Gesta Dei per Francos). They never quite got over the idea, at least not until recently when they, along with the rest of Europe stopped believing in God.

Where did this leave the un-chosen Jews? Pretty much moving from country to country until the czars of Russia invited them to live in the Slavic lands of the east. By the way, King Clovis, the king of the Franks and protector of the Roman Church was buried in; you guessed it... a church in France called the Church of the Holy Apostles, just like Constantine.

Next week:  How the west lost its Christian faith 400 years ago and nobody noticed until just now.

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