By Jonathon Van Maren
I recently finished reading historian Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, released in January. I’m planning to write a more extensive review at a later date, because it is a brilliant analysis of the history of Western civilization—and written by an agnostic, to boot. More than a narrative history tracing Christianity from the Crucifixion to the present, Holland’s book makes the case that without Christianity, the Western world would not exist—and that even the claims of the social justice warriors who despise the faith of their ancestors rest on a foundation of Judeo-Christian values. Those values run so deep, Holland says, that if the West had not become Christian, “no one would have gotten woke.”
In short: The Crucifixion was a radical offence to the ancient world of that day because for the first time, it showed that power could be attained through weakness—that victory could be obtained through suffering. This inverted everything that the ancient cultures believed. The sick, the mentally ill, the physically disabled—these unfortunates were seen as disposable by the ancients. It took the arrival of Christianity to transform, through the story of the Crucifixion and the radical idea that God created each person in His image, our approach to sexuality, slavery, and everything in between. Anyhow, I’ll write a longer review at a later date.
Earlier this month, Holland penned an article on the coronavirus pandemic for The Tablet titled “How the sick became precious.” In it, Holland makes the case that our entire global response to the COVID-19 pandemic is rooted in Christianity:
[A]t the end of the second century, and then again in the middle of the third, bowls of wrath were poured out on the Roman empire. Of the second pandemic, a historian would subsequently record that “there was almost no province of Rome, no city, no house, which was not attacked and emptied by this general pestilence”.
Did it mark, then, the breaking of the cities of the world foretold by St John? Many Christians believed so. Fatefully, however, it was not as worshippers of a God of wrath that they would come to be viewed by many of their fellow citizens, but as worshippers of a God of love: for it was observed by many in plague-ravaged cities how, “heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ”. Obedient to the commands of their Saviour, who had told them that to care for the least of their brothers and sisters was to care for him, and confident in the promise of eternal life, large numbers of them were able to stand firm against dread of the plague, and tend to those afflicted by it.
The compassion they showed to the sick – and not just to the Christian sick – was widely noted, and would have enduring consequences. Emerging from the terrible years of plague, the Church found itself steeled in its sense of mission. For the first time in history, an institution existed that believed itself called to provide compassion and medical care to every level of society.
The revolutionary implications of this, in a world where it had always been taken for granted that doctors were yet another perk of the rich, could hardly be overstated. The sick, rather than disgusting and repelling Christians, provided them with something they saw as infinitely precious: an opportunity to demonstrate their love of Christ.
Jesus himself, asked by a centurion to heal his servant of a mortal illness, had marvelled that a Roman should place such confidence in him – and duly healed the officer’s servant. By the beginning of the fourth century, not even their bitterest enemies could deny Christians success when it came to tending the sick. In Armenia, the Zoroastrian priests who marked down the Krestayne as purveyors of witchcraft were at the same time paying them a compliment. When the Armenian king became the first ruler to proclaim his realm a Christian land in 301, his conversion followed the success of a Christian holy man in curing him of insanity – and specifically of the conviction that he was a wild boar.
Then, just over a decade later, an even greater ruler was brought to Christ. Constantine embraced Christianity, not out of any concern for the unfortunate, but out of the far more traditional desire for a divine patron who would bring him victory in battle; but this did not mean, once the successful establishment of his regime had served to legitimate Christianity, that Christians among the ranks of the Roman elite turned a blind eye to their responsibility towards the sick.
Quite the opposite: “Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect.” So urged Gregory, an aristocrat from Cappadocia who in 372, 60 years after Constantine’s conversion, became the bishop of a small town named Nyssa. “Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of our Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.”
Despite the hatred that many insist on directing towards Christians in these troubled times—think of the LGBT activists protesting the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in New York—it is the legacy of Christianity that anybody cares about the sick in the first place.