What is the most powerful thing we have created? You might think of the atomic bomb which has the power to destroy a city. But I would argue that an idea is more powerful. Allow me to illustrate. Yes, an atomic bomb unleashes enormous destructive energy, but the restraining idea of mutually assured destruction (appropriate acronym MAD) has meant that no nuclear weapons have been used in war for over 80 years. There is an academic discipline called the history of ideas which stresses the impact of an idea on human civilisation.
I would like to talk about some of the ideas introduced in the Judaeo-Chr tradition that has benefited our Western culture in the last 2000 years. Usually we don’t notice the difference because we are unfamiliar with the Roman world into which Christianity was born. As LP Hartly said, “The past is a foreign country.”
- Our Understanding of History
I want to illustrate this with our sense of history. This changed because of a shift in Hebrew thought which we see in the Old Testament. All cultures tended to have a cyclic understanding of past ages. There was not a sense of progress in history, just repeating ages. But the ancient Hebrew people understood that God acted in history in creation, to call Abraham, liberate his people in the Exodus and later the judgment of exile, and the anticipation of the Messiah. There was a before and after in history. This has been called by theologians ‘salvation history’ but note that it is history in which events can be recorded. This is simply an example of something that is now universally accepted but we have largely forgotten the origin of such a powerful idea.
In a couple of sermons I would like to explore some culture changing ideas which have had enormous impact. 38.9% of people in Australia reported no religion in the 2021 Census and it would seem that most of these Australians have little appreciation of the positive benefit that a Christian faith can bring to society.
Story told of two Aussies in a pub. The first said, “I’m a better educated bloke than you.” 2nd “I bet you $10 you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer.” 1st “Gentle Jesus meek and mild, listen to a little child. Pity my simplicity.” 2nd “You win, here’s $10.”
A question, “Are all people equal?” That is regardless of gender, race, citizenship, education, social status, wealth, age, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature. I would expect you to say, “Yes, of course.” Almost everyone, Christian and unbeliever, would acknowledge this. But the origin of such an idea is in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Specifically, Genesis chapter 1, verse 26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make human-kind in our own image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion’.” This is a powerful theological statement that all humans are made in the image of God. The clear implication is that we are all equal in value. It is very different from other creation stories which usually involved battles between various gods, with humanity an after-thought.
Plato, the father of Western philosophy believed that lives that people were not of equal value: some are men, some are women; some are Greeks, some are barbarians, some are free and some are slaves. Yes, I know slavery was accepted in the Bible but eventually Christians like Wilberforce changed laws making it illegal to own slaves. In the USA a civil war was fought on the issue. Creation in the image of God was foundational to such struggles.
Additionally, the question of the value of human life was not universally acknowledged. Plato was typical of educated people in his time who saw humans as simply part of nature and nothing special. If we believe that every human life is sacred, we are standing in the biblical tradition.
It is obvious from history that most civilisations have been organised on profoundly different principles. As an example, consider the modern Communist China which has an ideology of economic equality, but treats its ethnic peoples as second-class citizens.
At present we have a profound emphasis on human rights. But this is coming under fire for example from people like Richard Dawkins with disturbing debates on the use of medical and social resources. Think, for example, about COVID and the allocation of ventilators.
It is hard for us to appreciate just how brutal the ancient Roman world was at the time of Jesus birth. Yes, there was political stability, what is been called Pax Romana which lasted two centuries ? but at a high cost. For example, Julius Caesar bragged about killing a million and enslaving million Gauls (that is people living where modern France is on the map). Death by crucifixion was reserved for slaves and anyone who revolted against Roman rule.
The killing of infants was widespread in the Roman world usually by exposure. Aristotle recommended it for anyone born defective. The Christian emperor Valentinian forbade the killing of infants for any reason.
The Roman version of mass entertainment was blood sports. Literally. We have seen enough movies to know about gladiatorial conflict and Christians being killed by wild animals, but it was their ‘entertainment’ and astonishingly brutal. One of the early critics of Christianity said, “You do not attend our shows.” Arena sports ceased in AD 401 by the edict of a Christian emperor Honorius.
Compassion is a Christian virtue. It is exemplified by Jesus. The early Church took up collections for the poor and sick, not just their own but for those in need in the surrounding culture. The bishops of the early church presided over distribution centres of food and care. And the history Christian mission has been remarkable, just one example is the Benedictine Order who established over 2000 hospitals in the middle-ages in western Europe. The spirit of mission continues strong in all expressions of Christianity.
- Sexual Consent
The question of ‘who has sex with who’ is a matter of consent. We recognize the importance of this and teach it in our schools. Appropriately, “No means no”.
I apologise for the next section of my sermon which probably deserves an M rating, but this is necessary to give you a realistic picture. In the Roman world it was not a question of yes or no, but who was saying the words. Slaves were owned, and this included their bodies, so there was no right of refusal. If you didn’t the own slaves, then the sex industry was ubiquitous. The cost of a visit was about the price of a loaf of bread. And in the pagan world, prostitution was often associated with temple ‘worship’.
If you think of a hierarchy of power, on top of the pile was the wealthy male Roman citizen. Few restraints were placed on him. Next in power was high born women and wives. They could be citizens, but could not vote or hold public office. Sexual expectations for women were strict, and chastity was protected at all costs. This was probably to guarantee inheritance: that the offspring who inherit were the actual son or daughter of the male. However, there wasn’t much opportunity for pre-marital sex since most females were married by age 12. Ironically, a profound influence of Christianity was to expect a similar sexual ethic of both males and females.
Another significant change related to consent was the involvement of children and youth in sexual activity. In the Greek and Roman world such sexual activity was not only tolerated but celebrated by various writers. Christians were vocal opponents being uniformly disgusted by the practice. Pagans called such sexual activity pederasty (love of children) but Christians called the practice paidophthoros (destruction of children). The Christian emperor Justinian (d565) outlawed the practice and it could be prosecuted well after the abuse took place.
Note the role Christians took in defining abuse. As Glen Scrivener noted, “For abuse to be abuse we have to believe certain things: that body should be treated as temples, that sex is sacred and that children are valuable, and that the powerful should not exploit the weak but serve them.” (p100, The air we breathe, TheGoodBook Co., 2022)
I cannot defend the churches record in all these areas. We have not treated people equally, power and exploitation have often been part of the equation. There have been outrageous violence inspired by church leaders such as the Crusades and inquisition. Some Protestants persecuted women under the banner of witches. And our recent record with child abuse has been an international scandal that has tarnished the reputations of almost every denomination. Yes, acknowledged. And there have ideas such as democracy which came from ancient Athens. But I think that the fair assessment of the overall record would show that the influence of the church has been of enormous benefit to Western civilisation. This applies in various areas including welfare, distribution of wealth, education, health and human rights. While it is not often acknowledged, it has shaped our culture for the good of all. We can be proud of the good since it outweighs bad – in any fair estimation.
The Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens is the supply minister at GUC 2022-2023.