Tuesday 28 June 2016

Written in Water #8: Why Aren't You Dead?

Yes, that's right. This is an icon of Lawrence, smiling, with the barbecue grill that killed him.
So the Great Persecution ends, and the Church breathes a collective sigh of relief. But those years of hiding. Two attempts to extirpate the Christian faith entirely in living memory. The death of any number of brave, good, honest men, women and children, yes, children.

You don't get over that in a day. You don't get over that in a lifetime.

In 311CE the persecution had officially ended, but one of the emperors, Maximinus Daia, continued to kill Christians anyway for a couple of years. In 313, Constantine and his rival Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, and finally properly ended the persecution (Eusebius suggests that Licinius carried on persecuting Christians anyway, but other documentary evidence suggests otherwise). But what that means is that for ten years, somewhere in the Roman Empire, Christians were being hunted down and either forced to recant or killed.

And here's the thing. For the Christians of those days martyrdom was a hero's death. The tales of the martyrs were violent and painful, but they inspired Christians to do more.

For example, here's an account of the end of St Lawrence, who died chained to a griddle above a tray of smouldering coals by a Roman inquisitor. That's right, barbecued to death. 
Once the heat, prolonged all day
Has almost burned his side away,
Lawrence calls the magistrate,
addresses him from on the grate:
"Turn me over, this side of me
Has been cooked up sufficiently.
See what change your Vulcan made."
The Captain did as Lawrence bade.
And then he said when this was done,
"It's cooked. Eat up now, everyone!
Judge for yourself whether this fare
Is tastier well-done, or rare."
After this grim pleasantry
He gazes up into the sky
And sighing deeply, prays in pity
For Romulus' eternal city...
Prudentius, Peristephanon II. 396-412
(I reckoned that translating it into rhyming couplets worked because of that weird combination of high-faluting sentiment and grotesque comedy, which is right there in the text. This is what the Latin feels like to me.) 

Lawrence, barbecued, literally barbecued to death, says, as he lies dying in agony, "Turn me over, this side's about cooked." And then speculates about whether he's better rare or well-done. I am not making this up.

That is badass. And more than a little stomach-turning.  

The important thing about this is that while Lawrence died during the persecution of Valerian, in the mid-third century, that this is from from an epic poem, Prudentius's Peristephanon (The Crowns of Martyrdom) written in the second half of the fourth century, three generations after the institution of the Church as an official body. This, for all its explicit violence and pain, is in the realm of High Literature. There are much cruder stories, popular narratives.

Martyrdom was heroism.

And it wasn't a thing forgotten, even after the Church came out into the open (I have this picture in my head of grubby, hesitant people emerging from the catacombs, blinking in the sun) and found itself placed almost immediately in charge of the very structures that tried to destroy it.

I imagine this vast number of survivors, some with some sort of post-traumatic stress, and some with an awful lot of survivor guilt, especially in the places where the persecution was most enthusiastic, in Africa and the East. And of course, prominent churchmen arose and took the reins of power, temporal and spiritual over a church with a newly legislated hierarchy. And of course, suddenly finding these men given authority over them at the command of a distant Emperor, the question was asked: Why aren't you dead? 

Answer it.  

If you're so good, why aren't you dead? 

If the martyr was a hero to the early Christian, it was unforgivable to be a traditor, to recant and hand over the Scriptures to be burned rather your own body. The effort and cost in maintaining a Bible, even a partial one (and lest we forget, before the fifth century they were all partial because no one had agreed on what constituted a full set yet) was colossal.  Christians were the people who popularised the codex, the book as an object with covers and a spine rather than as a set of scrolls, for example, for the simple reason that a book with a spine allows you to write on both sides of the paper, and that keeps down costs.

It seems hard to imagine now, but handing over something that was both so prohibitively expensive in terms of time and effort, and this is more important still, and which carried such a weight of emotional investment just to save your own skin was seen as a terrible sin. It wasn't absolutely unforgivable – they'd let you back into the fold – but if you were a traditor they'd never trust you again.
The word traditor is the root of the word traitor.   

So imagine for a second.

Here is a leader. You're assured that he's always stood up for his faith, has always been stalwart and open about it. And it seems perverse, but people are going to say, if you're such a hero, why weren't you martyred? What did you do with your Gospels?

Eusebius himself, writer of the first official definitive history of the Church, received these accusations. His home town of Caesarea was a hotbed of persecution, but he got out alive and well. They didn't stick, but they were these.

Sometimes these accusations became feverish, extreme. People died for them. 

So here's Carthage. Carthage is in North Africa, on the Western side of the Lake of Tunis, and five hundred years before this was a major Mediterranean power. Hannibal came from Carthage. But Carthage got burned to the ground, and rebuilt as a Roman colony, and come 313 it was another Roman city with Christians who had suffered horribly in the persecutions.

And now the Church was a state institution, and it was time to appoint a bishop. And the Holy See back across the sea in Rome sent a man named Caecilian. What follows is sort of a simplified summary of some of the versions of the story. There were many. It's messy and complex.

The problem was, a large number of the Christians in Carthage went, we don't want this man as our spiritual leader, because we heard he survived the persecution by handing over his Bible. We have a bishop we want, his name's Majorinus, and he's unblemished.

And back in Rome, they investigated, and found Caecilian innocent, and then Majorinus up and died, and so they said, nope, Caecilian is definitely your bishop. God says so. We know that because we say so.

And the Carthaginians said, it doesn't matter if he's innocent because he got sworn in as a bishop by Felix of Aptungi and we know that this guy handed his Bible over, and anyway we have a new bishop called Donatus.

It got nasty.

After five years of no one getting anywhere, Emperor Constantine weighed in and did what he normally did when people didn't come round to his way of thinking. He sent in the troops.

And the Donatists, which was what everyone had started calling them, went underground. They were the first Christian group to receive violent persecution at the hands of other Christians.

The end of the story is this: having been violently suppressed, the Donatists became radicalised. Donatist extremists,who became known as Circumcellions (it's from a Greek word meaning "people from around the tombs", because they made their hideouts in the caves people used to bury the dead in) began to perform acts of terrorist violence, attacking desert travellers, raiding homes, attacking small landholders who sympathised with the government. The Donatists continued to be a problem for over a century. Long after anyone involved in the original argument was dead.

About Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Emperor of Rome, Ammianus Marcellinus wrote this:

From experience he knew that no wild animals are as hostile toward people as most Christians are vicious towards each other.
Ammianus Marcellinus, XXII. 5. 4

Survivor guilt did that, the toxicity imposed by having experienced fear and violence and betrayal for generations. The speed and enthusiasm with which the Church took to violent suppression of schisms and heresies is breathtaking. The survival of persecution had turned the faith of the underdog into the structure that would one day give the world the Inquisition.

I think this is human nature. Even today, you can see over and over that the peoples who have historically faced the most horrific systematic persecutions become themselves the the most vindictive persecutors of others. You only need to look at any piece of news from the Middle East to see that. The cycle perpetuates itself, forever, and it takes more than someone like me can bring to bear to stop it.