Printer Friendly

There is no Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire.

doi: 10.1017/S0009640708001194

There is no Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire. By Michael Gaddis. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 39. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. xiv + 401 pp. $49.95 cloth.

Scholars have long tried to answer the seeming paradox of how Christians-themselves the object of intermittent violence in the first three centuries and believers in a Christ who exhorted his followers to "turn the other cheek"--could support coercive violence against their perceived enemies in the fourth century. Gaddis's book presents an important argument about this vexed topic. Rather than seeing religious violence as the result of inherent Christian intolerance (notwithstanding Edward Gibbon) or simply "inauthentic" Christianity (15), Gaddis focuses on ideas of martyrdom and persecution that he claims shifted in the fourth century in such a way as to allow Christians to see religious violence as fitting within their moral system. This is a multifaceted phenomenon since, as Gaddis underscores, there was no "single and monolithic 'authentic Christian tradition' on violence, but rather there were many different and hotly contested voices, all grounded in scripture" (15).

For Gaddis, the reign of Constantine is pivotal: "Stung by the Donatists' unexpected resistance to his call for unity with traditores, ... Constantine did what his pagan predecessors had done when faced with resistance to their religious policies: he persecuted. The 'Church of the Martyrs,' true to its name, refused to yield ... As far as the Donatists were concerned, the great Persecution was still going on" (55). The issue is not merely imperial willingness to use force. Rather, it is the persistence of the ideology of martyrdom on the part of Christian dissidents--here the Donatists--who saw their resistance as heroic and glorious in the face of persecution, little different (in their eyes) indeed from that suffered under pagan emperors; no wonder that Donatist martyr accounts in the fourth century sound so much like those written in the face of pagan persecution.

But after Constantine there was a marked difference; as Gaddis points out, in the Christian empire, "the imperial authorities often used their coercive power against Christian dissidents at the behest of Christian bishops" (75). The bishop's advocacy of violence to attain obedience and conformity within Christian communities was justified as serving God. Hence John Chrysostom in 387 could justify coercive violence as he told his Antiochene congregation how to deal with blasphemers: "sanctify your hand by the blow!" (Chrysostom, Homilies on the Statues, 1.32, quoted by Gaddis, 15). What had changed was that "the spiritual combat of the martyrs ... was no longer confined within the physical limits of the tortures inflicted upon the martyr's body, but now struck out directly against the enemies of the faith. 'Unable to endure the indignity thus put upon their religion' by the simple reappearance of pagan worship, the Christians struck back" (93, Gaddis here citing Theodoret HE 3.3). Convincingly, Gaddis draws on modern studies of religious zealots to explain the psychology that lies behind this response; he observes studies in which modern zealots were similarly imbued with a sense of insult or humiliation that then justified for them the use of violence (93). This is important for Gaddis's argument, since in his view "victims of such actions (that is, religious coercion) chose to see it as persecution, emphasizing the emperor's role, in order to cast it as an unacceptable intrusion of worldly forces into church affairs" (76).

For Gaddis, it is the widespread discourse that justified violence--more than violence itself--that is key to understanding its acceptance by fourth- and fifth-century Christians of all types. Hence, the incident referenced in the title to Gaddis's book and described so vividly in the beginning of his study becomes understandable. The Egyptian monk Shenoute responded to a pagan magistrate whose house he had just ransacked: "There is no crime for those who have Christ." This is not merely the response of an extremist, although such extremists did exist. Rather, his words resonated within a community that had come to accept violence as fitting within a Christian morality and heroic notions of martyrdom.

Certainly, acceptance of this rhetoric of violence was not unqualified. As Gaddis notes, there were Christians who resisted such formulations (see especially his discussion of Donatists and Augustine in chapters 3 and 4). However, the extremists impressed many; their fervor and willingness to be martyred overcame the reservations of many. However, it should also be pointed out that bishops and extremists were, at critical moments, aided by an imperial government that was increasingly willing to use coercion to achieve its religious ends.

Of particular note is the introduction to this book. Here, Gaddis reveals his wide reading in contemporary works on violence as he systematically dissects the "Historiography of Violence," and then proceeds through problems of methodology and evidence to finally outline his study. If this introduction has the earmarks of the doctoral thesis from which this book grew, this reviewer nonetheless found it informative and incisive. One might quibble about the omission of some references (for example the important article by J. B. Rives, "The Decree of Decius and the Religion of the Empire," The Journal of Roman Studies 89 [1999]: 135-154, and Johannes Hahn, Gewalt und religioser Konflikt: Studien zu den Auseinandersetzungen zwischen Christen, Heiden und Juden im Osten des Romischen Reiches [von Konstantin his Theodosius II], [Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2004], although the latter may have appeared too late to be considered). I would not agree entirely with Gaddis's singular focus on ideology to explain religious violence; the imperial and Christian institutions and structures were central in supporting and allowing even the rhetoric of violence to flourish. However, Gaddis's explanation for the appearance of the late antique discourse on religious violence, so skillfully dissected in this study, is provocative and important. Indeed, given the contemporary relevance of this subject, this reviewer thinks this book deserves to reach a wider audience.

Michele Renee Salzman

University of California at Riverside
COPYRIGHT 2008 American Society of Church History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Salzman, Michele Renee
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2008
Words:994
Previous Article:Voting about God in Early Church Councils.
Next Article:Episcopal Culture in Late Anglo-Saxon England.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |