Last night I watched the first two episodes of “Jesus: Rise to Power” on SBS on Demand (you can get an app for that on your ipad). Apparently these two episodes are on YouTube too, so you can look them up and watch them for yourselves.
Any historical program about Jesus that has both Elaine Pagels and Karen King as guest commentators already gives its agenda away, but I was prepared to give this one a chance. I was just setting myself up to be disappointed. The episode on Jesus claims that the crucifixion of Jesus was the most important event in the Christian story, which it is, but not without the next part of the story, the part which this documentary skips entirely: the Resurrection. Well, I’ve come to expect that. (For a couple of interesting books on the ‘historical’ Jesus, you might want to consider two that I am currently reading: the first is James Carroll’s “Christ Actually” – a rather idiosyncratic work but worth looking at – and, from a more orthodox perspective, Ben Witherington III’s “What have they done with Jesus?”.)
But what really got up my nose was the whole thrust of the second episode on martyrdom. Now I know that there is some of evidence that some early Christians created a cult out of martyrdom – I don’t mean the veneration of the relics, but rather a cult out of actively seeking martyrdom. This was, as far as I understand, discouraged by the bishops and other church leaders. And I know too that in the popular imagination the persecution of Christians by the Romans is sometimes exaggerated (although it must be said that the persecutions by Diocletian in the decade before the Edict of Milan was so severe that had it continued, Christianity might not have survived). This article is not a bad summary of the topic.
“Jesus: Rise to Power” Episode 2 makes these points but then goes on to take another tack which I fiind perfectly consistent with modern secular thinking and, to be frank, a bit insulting to sincere religious believers. The thesis is this: The Roman Empire was actually a very tolerant and accepting regime. They were happy to let Christians believe what they like and read their scriptures and do their other funny little things – as long as they were good and reasonable Romans, which included participation in the pagan sacrificial cults (curiously, they don’t actually spell out and specify that it was the cult of Caesar that was at the heart of the problem). So, it was really the fault of the Christians that they got themselves imprisoned and killed in such great numbers. It was the Christians who were the extremists, and who were being intolerant and unaccepting etc.
The explanation for the Christian opposition to the pagan cults is very poorly explained in “Jesus: Rise to Power”. The suggestion is simply that because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all sin, therefore no other sacrifice was necessary. Well, that could have explained why they might not have participated in the Jewish cult (although that only actually ended when the Jewish cult itself ended in 70AD with the destruction of the temple), but Christians didn’t participate in pagan sacrifice for the same reason Jews didn’t – idolatry. On top of that, they refused to acknowledge the Emperor as Lord because Jesus was Lord. Faith was not just something “personal” or “interior” – it affected how you lived in the world.
In the same way, the modern western secular empire doesn’t understand persecution or religious freedom. Western secularism doesn’t persecute Christians (or any other religious community – this could apply equally well to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs etc). “Christians are quite free to do whatever they like in their churches and believe whatever they like in their heads,” goes the argument, “as long as they accept the laws of the land as they are, including legalised abortion, contraception, same sex marriage, gender ideology, etc. If they get penalised for opposing these laws then that is their problem, we aren’t persecuting them because they are Christians.”
And so the Church in the United States (not just the Catholic Church, but also evangelicals and Lutherans and others) is being penalised and pilloried for opposition to the requirements of the HHS contraception and abortion mandate. Archbishop Cordileone of San Fransisco is being attacked for not “sharing the values of the community”. And Jews and Muslims are being denied their religious freedom by governments passing laws forbiding ritual slaughter of animals or circumcision and so on. And none of this is supposed to be anti-Christian, or anti-Semitic or Islamaphobic – its their problem, not ours.
So, “Jesus: Rise to Power” is a perfect fit with the Zeitgeist. While Christians are suffering true martyrdom in the middle east at the hands of ISIS, our commentators are continuing to build a narrative which puts the blame on the victims of persecution rather than the persecutors.