Friday, July 31, 2009

Going Back... to the Future?

In reading some church history, I was struck by how current this historical record sounds. This is an account by a church historian about the events that lead up to the Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian. It is an interesting commentary on the church of the early 4th century. As one who witnessed and endured the persecution, it is profound to hear who the author blames for the arrival of this dark time in the church history. In his estimation, the church brought the persecution upon itself.

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Read this excerpt and marvel at the modern parallels. I sure did.


How great, how unique were the honor, and liberty too, which before the persecution of my time were granted by all men, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, to the message given through Christ to the world, of the reverence for the God of the universe! It is beyond my ability to describe it as it deserves. Witness the goodwill so often shown by potentates to our people; they even put into their hands the government of the provinces, releasing them from the agonizing question of sacrificing, in view of the friendliness with which they regarded their teaching. What need I say about those in the imperial palaces and about the supreme rulers? Did they not permit the members of their households - consorts, children, and servants - to embrace boldly before their eyes the divine message and way of life, hardly minding even if they boasted of the liberty granted to the Faith? Did they not hold them in special esteem, and favor them more than their fellow servants? I might instance the famous Dorotheus, the most devoted and loyal of their servants, and on the account much more honored than the holders of offices and governorships. With him I couple the celebrated Gorgonius, and all who because of God's word were held in the same honor as these two.

And what approbation the rulers in every church unmistakably won from all procurators and governors! How could one describe those mass meetings, the enormous gatherings in every city, and the remarkable congregations in places of worship? No longer satisfied with the old buildings, they raised from the foundations in all the cities churches spacious in plan. These things went forward with the times and expanded at a daily increasing rate, so that no envy stopped them nor could any evil spirit bewitch them or check them by means of human schemes, as long as the divine and heavenly hand sheltered and protected its own people, as being worthy.

But increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth; we began envying and abusing each other, cutting other own throats, as occasion offered, with weapons of sharp-edged words; rulers hurled themselves at rulers and laymen waged party fights against laymen, and unspeakable hypocrisy and dissimulation were carried to the limit of wickedness. At last, while the gatherings were still crowded, divine judgement, with its wonted mercy, gently and gradually began to order things its own way, and with the Christians in the army the persecution began.

But alas! realizing nothing, we made not the slightest effort to render the Deity kindly and propitious; and as if we had been a lot of atheists, we imagined that our doings went unnoticed and unregarded, and went from wickedness to wickedness. Those of us who were supposed to be pastors cast off the restraining influence of the fear of God and quarrelled heatedly with each other, engaged solely in frantically demanding the despotic power they coveted.

Then, then it was that in accordance with the words of Jeremiah, the Lord in His anger covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud, and cast down from Heaven the glory of Israel; He remembered not the footstool of His feet in the day of His anger, but the Lord also drowned in the sea all beauty of Israel, and broke down all his fences. So also, as foretold in the Psalms, He overthrew the covenant of His bondservant and profaned the ground (through the destruction of the churches) his sanctuary and broke down all his fences; He made his strongholds cowardice. All that passed by the way despoiled the multitudes of the people; moreover, he became a reproach to his neighbors. For He exalted the right hand of his enemies, and turned back the aid of his sword and did not assist him in the war. But He also cut him off from cleansing and threw down his throne to the ground, and shortened the days of his time, and finally covered him with shame.

-Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, c. 236 - c. 339
from "The History of the Church" Book VIII

No comments: