Thursday, March 29, 2007

julian the apostate

Been reading a great Tim Keller book, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, for small group the past couple of months. Every study has been good so far, but something from last night's really jumped out at me. I'd heard of this guy before, and our fearless leader Walt had mentioned him in previous meetings, but he got a little more coverage in this week's chapter and discussion. And lessons learned from his actions would be hugely relevant in our country today, if only we'd learn them. Enter Julian the Apostate.

Julian had a Christian upbringing and was tutored by some of the great Christian scholars of his time, but turned to paganism at a young age -- hence the name by which he is commonly referred to. Early in the fourth century Christianity had flourished in the Roman empire during the reign of Constantine, and when Julian became emperor in A.D. 360 [1] it was a significant force throughout the empire. Due to Constantine's influence, most institutions of the empire were dominated by Christians by that time. This didn't sit well with Julian's pagan beliefs, and early on he set out to quell the spreading Christian faith and reestablish paganism as the empire's dominant religion. However, he quickly grew frustrated at how the old religions were giving way to the younger but rapidly expanding Christianity.

Being no fool and a student of history, Julian pursued his goal methodically. He studied how Christianity had spread since its intrusion into the Roman empire and observed that many previous efforts to contain it had failed. People were tortured and they encouraged others around them to live out their faith even more powerfully. People were martyred and other believers gathered around them and rejoiced. People were taken away from their families and those left only prayed and sought God more. In light of such evidence, Julian easily concluded that the whole persecution thing didn't work. In fact, it seemed to have an effect opposite its purpose. So open violence against Christians was not a viable option. [2]

So he then looked at what had made Christianity successful even in spite of such troubles. One of his observations is striking even today. He saw that Christians not only took care of their own poor but those outside the church as well. This caused people to hold the church in high esteem and turn to it, and not the state, for aid. Keller quotes Julian himself: "It is disgraceful that . . . while the impious Galileans [Christians] support their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!"

What, then, was Julian's response? He realized that he needed to undermine the faith by creating a social structure to rival this Christian practice. And that's exactly what he did. The result was the first large-scale social welfare system in history. [3] As with other programs Julian put in place to counter the faith, he modeled his system and its goals after the successful practices he saw in church-based systems. His hope was that this would not only make citizens, even Christians, turn to the state (i.e., him and his government) for aid but would also take the power and motivation for serving society in this way out of the hands of Christians.

And he was very successful. He wasn't able to stamp out Christianity like he had hoped, but the system he put in place in his short three-year reign led to a marked decrease in Christian involvement in caring for the poor. And, for the first time since the young movement took flight and became widespread in the empire, the influence and impact of the faith ceased to grow and even started to decline. Although Theodosius would make Christianity the official religion some 20 years later, Julian certainly did succeed in throwing a big obstacle in the path of its theretofore consistent growth. It's safe to say that Julian was onto something in not holding back but trying to supercede the actions of Christians. One can only wonder what would have happened, or continued to happen, had he not been killed in a skirmish so early in his tenure.

So Julian's government actually succeeded in stemming the tide of Christianity by playing its own game and trying to take its place in society. Hmmmnnnn...a government system that is a cause, or at least a major contributing factor, of Christianity ceasing to be an active and integral part of its society...sound vaguely familiar? It ought to. We're living under such a system today in this country. Rather than get out there and meet needs that need to be met -- and can ultimately only be met by moral and spiritual means -- it seems that Christians are content to live out their faith to the unchurched by "evangelizing" whenever convenient (i.e., rarely if at all) and giving money once they've taken care of their own whims, and letting others take care of the "dirty work" that the early church took upon itself.

And, well, look at the resulting church we have today. Look at its impact in today's culture. Look at its presence in communities. Where do the downtrodden turn first for help? Need I say more? Not to make this too political, but it seems that a lot of people on the left are following in Julian's footsteps, whether they intend to or not. I think we who oppose them have a lot to learn from past examples too.

So, about that government intervention thing. It sounds cute and all, and it's nice to think of a benevolent behemoth doling out alms to those who need them. But the question is, how well does it actually work? I bet if you could ask Julian, he'd say he was quite pleased with the results he saw, if only for a short time. Big government served his purposes. Will it serve ours?

Links, sources, etc.:
Julian the Apostate (scholar-friendly)
Julian the Apostate (Wikipedia)
Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road

[1] With the support of his soldiers, Julian proclaimed himself co-emperor with Constantius in A.D. 360, a move the then-current emperor didn't appreciate much. But they were both apparently emperors in some sense for a little while, and one of Constantius' last official acts before he died in 361 was to declare Julian his rightful successor. So Julian didn't actually become the official emperor until then. Thus some sources say he reigned for three years and others say two, but they're both right. It all depends on when you assume his start date to be.

[2] Julian was also generally nonviolent when it came to dealing with internal issues and tended to be more intellectual and philosophical than most leaders of the time, so he surely wasn't inclined toward violence or open oppression in the first place. But he did undertake campaigns against the empire's enemies and he was killed in battle.

[3] I've heard that it was the first but I can't find anything right now to substantiate such a claim. But in any case it was at least one of the first and by far the most widespread and all-encompassing, both due to its scope and because of the sheer size of the Roman empire.

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