Conservative commentators from every part of the spectrum right of Obama have recently noticed an ugly turn in the discourse of the Left toward overt hatred of their ideological adversaries. More and more of us have seen that the knives are now suddenly out, the claws no longer sheathed. Leftist politicians forthrightly share their fervent hope that such as we might die, and do not stop either to consider whether it is just, or proper, or polite to say such things, or having said them, to repudiate the evil that perfuses their hearts. Furthermore, with the Obama presidency the cult of personality, of the Dear Leader and his wife, so reminiscent of the Perons in Argentina, has reached a new florescence. The regal appearance of Queen Michelle at the Academy Awards last week, bestowing the regime’s approval on the most popular folks of the Hollywood amen chorus (backed up by members of the Praetorian Guard), was only the most recent instance of this trend. And while we may react with horror to this turn of events, most folks take it in stride, or even rather like it. It makes them feel comfortable.
What’s up? It’s the First Century all over again, that’s what. The old Imperial cult that deified Caesar is back. And orthodox Christians are now in the same relation to the state cult that they were in the days of Nero: unruly, disloyal, seditious, essentially treasonous fanatics, a threat to public order and propriety, insane and wicked sinners against public piety, and in the event of any public disaster the first scapegoats.
When Augustus deified his adoptive father Julius Caesar, the move had a great deal of precedent, if not in Italy and the West, then throughout Rome’s eastern possessions. Everywhere east and south of Greece, the local King of each polis had always been understood as the persona, the vicar, of the god or angel – the son of God Most High – who ruled over and protected the nation. So the Augustan deification of Julius Caesar, and of himself ipso facto a divine son of a god, was a brilliant move politically. It provided to Rome’s subjects a way of understanding the relation of their fatherlands to the Empire, a way to parse their devotion so as to maintain their local cult and culture (thus its continued economic coordination, its production, and its tax revenues) while ensuring their superordinate loyalty and subservience to Rome. Their local politan gods were subject to the cosmopolitan god of Rome, whose son and vicar was the Emperor. Rome’s subjects were likewise. They could continue in their private devotions to whatever gods they chose – those of their ancestors, or (as the commercial and cultural melting pot of the Levant – the crossroads of the whole world – kept on cooking) of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Hindus or Persians, provided they also made public obeisance at the altar of Caesar divus.
The Imperial cult was a key factor in maintaining peaceful, prosperous international relations under Rome’s aegis. It grounded the over-arching authority of Rome, and of her laws, in just the same way that her subjects had always grounded their own laws: in the ordinations of the gods.
Only one nation was excused from public worship of the Emperor: the Jews. For Rome knew that, alone among the nations, the cult of Israel forbad such idolatrous obeisances, and hoped to avoid the errors of Antiochus Epiphanes, who had profaned the Temple with pagan rites (this was the famous abomination of desolation) and so provoked the successful Maccabean revolt (which muddled the western flank of the Seleucid Empire and opened an opportunity for Rome). As it turned out, of course, no matter how they tried to coddle the Jews, the Romans fared almost as badly as the Seleucids. The Jews were stiff-necked, rigorous, devout, and valiant, and they rebelled again and again, despite crushing defeats that inflicted millions of casualties. Their valor is really rather staggering to contemplate. It is a good question whether Rome ever made a dime on her investment in her Hebrew possessions and tributaries.
Despite the almost continuous turmoil in Israel and Judah, the overall effect of Roman rule for most peoples of the Near East was an unprecedented era of peace.
In the end, what mattered most to people, not only in the East, was the fact that the emperor had brought peace, and that he was the guarantor of eternal peace – he as an individual, and, by virtue of passing on office and status, his successors … Augustus had brought lasting peace, thus he was the Soter, the Saviour. The emperor was truly venerated as a god in the Gentile world, and as we know from inscriptions, occasionally people prayed to him and asked for help in need and illness.
– Carsten Peter Thiede, The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus, p. 36.
Remember how Obama was going to heal all wounds, stop global warming and halt the rising of the seas? People really believed that stuff, subcortically; a lot of them still do. They believe Obama is a brilliant, wonderful and good man, who would by now have ushered in a new Golden Age if it were not for the perfidious intractability of the Evil Republicans. Seriously, I kid you not: I have heard people talk this way.
When Rome burned in AD 64, Nero’s heroic measures of public welfare intended to succor those who had suffered in the disaster did not suffice to stem a persistent rumor that he himself had caused it (cf. Hurricane Katrina, the Twin Towers, and so forth). He needed a scapegoat. He chose the Christians, who like the Jews had refused to participate in the idolatrous imperial cult, preferring their own son of God (puts “render unto Caesar” in a different light, no?), but who, unlike the Jews, had no cultural tradition exculpating them for refusing such participation. On the contrary: by 64, Christianity had burst forth from its original base among the Jews and taken root in every gentile nation of the Empire. Having freely chosen their total devotion to Jesus, and the rejection of the Imperial cult entailed thereby, gentile Christians were without excuse. They paid dearly for it.
As a consequence, to get rid of the report [of his own culpability for the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but, even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. In accordance, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not as much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
– Tacitus, Annals XV.44
“A class hated for their abominations … by the populace.” Sounds uncomfortably familiar, doesn’t it?
Thus began a grand tradition of state persecution of Christians. It persisted until 311, when Constantine and his fellow Caesars, whom he eventually superseded, agreed to tolerate us, despite the fact that we had “followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that [we] would not obey the institutes of antiquity.” Constantine’s own conversion to Christianity was, among other things, implicitly a straightforward and utter repudiation of the old Imperial cult. Constantine was indeed officially anointed of the Lord, but was not himself personally a son of God.
That sublime recusal perdured throughout Christendom for 1700 years. It is now over, and the civil cult is once again arrayed against Christianity. The only difference is that nowadays the cult of the cosmopolis is atheist.
What may we expect?
There will come a disaster. It won’t be global warming; our future persecutors have been preparing our culpability for “climate change” for a couple decades now, but the climate isn’t changing, and the hoi polloi seem to be losing interest in the idea. The disaster will be something different; perhaps an economic or fiscal collapse, followed by food riots. Perhaps it will be manufactured, blown up out of all proportion by the press, but really not so bad in reality (when have we ever seen that happen, eh? Eh?). Perhaps our rulers will set the fire themselves.
We will be the scapegoats.
And that will be great! It will provide us tremendous new opportunities to win the glorious merits of martyrdom in the persecutions that would follow. It will purge and purify the Church, strengthen and perhaps even unite her again. Who knows what prodigies of sanctity might then appear? Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. You’re going to have to die anyway, so you might as well die for the Lord God Almighty, no? Can you think of anyone you’d rather die for? What better way to go, than to be a hero?