Monday, April 28, 2014

Our Having Parents Seemed to Us a Great Hindrance

I'm still plowing through Michael Gaddis's There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ (California, 2005), which is full of material with fascinating parallels to contemporary disputes over values, activism, persecution, and martyrdom.  One of my favorite bits quotes St. Teresa Ávila's autobiography, in which the great mystic told how, "when she was a little girl, she and her brother had been seized by a passionate desire for martyrdom, and they planned to run away to North Africa, preach the Gospel, and be beheaded by the Muslims – but their parents would not allow it" (165).  Held back from their holy vocation by these enemies of Christ, "we decided to become hermits; and we used to try very hard to build hermits' cells in an orchard belonging to the house..." (165, note 43).

That sounds like a pitch for the next Disney animated feature, but much of the history Gaddis discusses isn't as cute.  While Christian bishop and terrorist leader John Chrysostom, later sainted by Orthodox and Roman Catholic schismatics alike, went into his first exile from Constantinople in 403, there were riots among his supporters.  But something surprising happened; Gaddis quotes the polytheist Byzantine historian Zosimus:
While the city was in an uproar, the Christian church was taken over by the so-called monks.  (These men renounce lawful marriage and fill populous colleges of bachelors in cities and villages: they are useless for war or any other service to the state.  Moreover, from that time to this, they have taken over most of the land and, under the pretext of giving everything to the poor, have reduced almost everyone else to beggary.)  These men, then, took over the churches and hindered the people from coming in for their customary prayers.  This enraged the commoners and soldiers, who, anxious to humble the monks’ insolence, went out when the signal was given, and violently and indiscriminately killed them all, until the church was filled with bodies.  Those who tried to escape were pursued and anyone who happened to be wearing dark clothes was struck down, so that many died with them who were found in this garb because of mourning or some other tragic chance [224-5, quoting Zosimus' New History 5.23].
Gaddis comments:
Monks, zealous men of Christ, had been slaughtered by the dozens if not more, their blood spilled within the very precincts of the Hagia Sophia, at the hands of an enraged mob and of armed soldiers.  Such a lurid picture of sacrilegious violence might recall other massacres, such as the attack that fell upon John’s supporters in their church in the middle of baptismal rites a few months later, or the brutal assault made by the Homoian bishop Lucius against the Nicene congregation of Alexandria thirty years previously.  And yet no Christian source reports any expression of sympathy for the victims of this massacre, and there is certainly no evidence that the slain monks were venerated as martyrs or even that any such claim was ever made on their behalf.

In fact, no surviving Christian source mentions the incident at all [225]...
Gaddis speculates that the reason this massacre left no trace in Christian history was that it violated the good guys vs. bad guys model of most lives of the saints, as well as later Christian historiography.
The case of Chrysostom was considerably complicated by the fact that not only John but also several of his most bitter opponents came to be venerated in later Christian tradition as saints.  If both sides in such a battle could claim the mantle of holiness, their disputes could not easily be presented as struggles on behalf of the faith and could at best cause confusion and embarrassment.  Socrates’ report of the confrontation between John and Epiphanius, monk and bishop of Salamis, presented the curious spectacle of two holy men, equally beloved by God, hurling curses at each other.  Epiphanius prophesied that John “will not die a bishop” and John countered with the prediction that Epiphanius would never again see his home country.  The holy man’s curse, a public prediction or invocation of divine vengeance upon an evildoer, is a common feature in hagiography.  But in this case, the cursing was reciprocal.  Since both men were saints, both predictions came true: John was soon deposed, and Epiphanius died on his way back to Cyprus [225].
Gaddis says early on that Christian holy violence wasn't necessarily the norm in the first centuries of the Christian Roman empire; it's hard to say just how widespread it was.  To his credit, he recognizes and mentions parallels between Christian holy violence of this period and modern holy violence by Muslims, Hindus, and others.  (Though he doesn't say so, Jesus' "Cleansing of the Temple Court" provides a model for later militants.)  He shows how "extremism" can put "moderation" on the spot, as in cases where Christian clerics destroyed pagan, Jewish and "heretical" Christian places of worship and refused imperial orders to pay for their replacement, on the grounds that doing so would constitute endorsement of the enemies of God.
Extremists can answer any questioning of their tactics with a simple retort: whose side are you on?  Ambrose upended the normal paradigm of law and order and redefined the situation in terms of a new emphasis religious identity that transcended all other considerations … The bishop and the monks were Christians, and the emperor claimed to be a Christian.  If Theodosius forced the bishop to pay restitution, he would in effect be siding with Jews against Christians, an act of apostasy no matter what the circumstances.  In Ambrose’s apocalyptic presentation of the issue, the rebuilding of a synagogue would be a humiliation to the Christian religion on a par with Julian’s planned restoration of the Jerusalem temple: the Jews would celebrate this “triumph” over Christ for centuries to come.  Ambrose acknowledged that the bishop was “too eager” but argued that the Christians’ zeal for Christ merited clemency… [195].
In somewhat milder form, this position is familiar today.  If you opposed Bush's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, you were obviously on the side of Al Qaeda and wanted to see America conquered.  If you're critical of President Obama, obviously you want the Republicans to take over the country and take away all our rights.  If you don't want Mozilla to fire Brendan Eich, you obviously want GLBT citizens to be deprived of their rights, and you probably wouldn't care if Mozilla was run by a white supremacist.  The fact that the latter accusations are milder doesn't change the fact that they are constructed from the same manichaean logic.  I don't want to blame it on religion, though, since not all religion accepts this position all the time; sometimes it overtly and explicitly rejects it, and some atheists accept it.  (If you're critical of Science, you must think that the world is 6000 years old!)  But it's easy to see how the trope found its way into religion; it's clearly an easy position for human beings to invent and reinvent when the going gets tough.