December 21, 2007


Caption: The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio, courtesy of wikipedia.

Aside from links and comments about current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is the early history of Christianity. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier posts.

Most people are aware that persecution of Christians by Romans was a prominent feature of early Christian life until the early 4th century. However, it wasn't all lions all the time. With some exceptions, persecutions tended to be sporadic and local and were often instigated by angry citizens or mobs rather than the Roman state.

The first major Roman persecution was that of Nero around the year 64. The emperor, who was nuts by even Roman imperial standards, blamed Christians for a fire of which he was the likely cause. This is what the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the incident in book 15 of his Annals:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians 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. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so 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.

Although this would be cold comfort to the persecuted, including possibly Peter and Paul, Christians under Nero were not persecuted for their beliefs but rather for the bogus claim of arson.

Often, local persecutions were initiated by angry pagan citizens who pressured the state to take action against believers. Roman provincial governors had two main priorities: keep the peace and collect taxes (not necessarily in that order), and might yield to such pressures. Some early Christian martyrologies portray them as reluctant persecutors.

Given that early Christians were a pretty inoffensive group, what was behind the persecutions? In some cases, Christians would be blamed for various natural disasters, diseases, or other misfortunes, presumably because the gods were angry that their worship was neglected.

In other cases, Christians were believed to routinely engage in orgies, incest, and even ritual cannibalism. This came about through misinformation about basic Christian beliefs and practices. For example, it was known that Christianity was supposed to be a religion of love, that believers called each other brother and sister and exchanged a holy kiss, and that their most sacred ritual, the Eucharist, involved partaking of the flesh and blood of the Son of God. Some people evidently heard a few of those key words and drew their own conclusions.

More often, particularly in the systematic and empire-wide persecutions, which got worse in the third and early fourth centuries, Christians were persecuted for refusing to honor the divine genius of the emperor, a simple ritual that might involve burning a piece of incense or participating in a public sacrifice. Christians who did so were usually released, while those who refused could suffer horrible martyrdom.

In general, Rome didn't really care what people believed, as long as they participated in such public demonstrations of loyalty, which was probably viewed in much the same way that many Americans regard the Pledge of Allegiance. Sad to say, not too many years have passed since groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses were mistreated in this country for refusing to say the pledge.

One of the many sad ironies of history is the alacrity with which the persecuted become persecutors themselves.

IT'S NOT JUST THE UNINSURED. The scope of America's health care crisis goes beyond the more than 45 million uninsured Americans. According to Families USA,

While much national attention has focused on the uninsured, there is an almost invisible but growing crisis among insured families, as rising health care costs devour an ever-growing portion of their pre-tax income. In the United States, 61.6 million people under the age of 65, 82.4 percent of which are insured, are in families that will spend more than 10 percent of their pre-tax family income on health care costs in 2008, according to a report issued today by the consumer health organization Families USA.

In addition, there are 17.8 million people in families that will spend more than 25 percent of their pre-tax income on health care costs in 2008.

Here's a summary of their new study with a link to the full report.

WORK AND HEALTH. A new study finds that "Employees who have more control over their daily activities and do challenging work they enjoy are likely to be in better health..."

TAX CUTS OR INVESTMENTS? Here's an item by Robert Borosage about alternatives for moving the economy out of the doldrums.

TO READ OR NOT TO READ? The correct answer is the former. Unfortunately, that's not happening as much as it used to. Here's a New Yorker article on that lamentable trend. Here's a sample:

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.

"OH DEER," HE WHALED. According to this science item, whales may have descended from tiny deer-like creatures. Check out the picture.