Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Do Not Be Afraid - thoughts on the politics of fear (part one), by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
First Letter of Peter 3

The social parallels between the time of the first Christians—from the destruction of Jerusalem in CE 72 to about 300—and this modern era have long fascinated me.

In the first and second centuries of the Common Era, Rome was to achieve the farthest extent of its imperial reach, marked in the West by Hadrian’s Wall that demarked the border between Britannia and the unruly Picts in what was to become Scotland. The year the Wall was completed, CE 128, marks the moment when Rome began its centuries-long decline into dissolution.

At the same time, the Roman economy was showing signs of strain with inflations and recessions undermining public confidence in the central government. The biggest single budget item was the military. At the same time it was a period of widespread and rapid technological advancement, driven often by the needs of the imperial armies and navies.

Roman invasions and domination of foreign peoples created massive movements of peoples out of their ancestral homes, the occupiers sometimes Romanizing the cultures and sometimes forcing populations to relocate. Refugees moved into urban areas, bringing strange languages and stranger customs with them. Social unrest occurred throughout the empire during this period.

A good example of strange cultures running headlong into Roman might is the situation in Judaea, with constant insults to the Jewish population creating riots and rebellions, culminating first in the invasion of Titus and his Legions (one of the first places conquered was the fortress at Masada near the Dead Sea), and in CE 135 the utter desolation of Jerusalem, such that the walls of the Temple Mount were torn down to the foundation stones and literally levelled (it is still that way).

The Romans never understood the Jews or their rabidly monotheistic religion. As far as the Romans were concerned the first Christians were just odd and recalcitrant Jews.

This is the context of the writing of the First Letter of Peter, in which the author (probably a disciple of the apostle) addresses these early Christians as sojourners, foreigners living in a foreign land.

The early Christians were being expelled from the synagogues as apostates but not being received into Roman society because of their religion and customs (which most Romans considered barbaric). He describes not formal government-driven persecution but social slights and smears and slurs that sometimes led to mob action. They were thus alienated from their previous religious roots and from the society around them, subject to ridicule and discrimination.

In the face of all this 1 Peter tells them, do not be afraid.

The phrases “do not be afraid” and “do not fear” occur over sixty times in the Christian Bible. What these phrases express is confidence in the loving care of their God and the salvific action of their Lord - in other words, don’t fear what those other guys fear.

The early Christians had good reason to be afraid and yet not to fear. They could be realistic about their present situation in society and yet smile knowingly because of their faith in the future. What these Christians knew is what drove their Roman neighbors to distraction: they knew they were living at once in the Roman Empire and in the Kingdom of God - which is how Christians ought to be living today.

Next Week: What the first Christians have to teach us about fear and anxiety.


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