Sunday, March 11, 2012

A pinch of incense: How Obamacare resembles a Roman edict

By John David Powell
Woven within the myriad histories of peoples, politics, and religions is the common crimson thread of persecution. It is a thread that is spun out of anxieties that sprout from the seeds of uncertainty, or from the fears that grow into madness when survival appears to be threatened.
At this time, in this country, lots of people and groups believe other people and groups are targeting them for persecution. Take the recent flap over whether the federal government can make the Catholic Church provide insurance coverage for benefits that are in contradiction to the official dogmas of the church. Ironically, the Catholic Church sees this as political persecution from the government while women and liberal organizations see the push-back as social and religious persecution on the part of the Catholic Church.
The events of the last few weeks remind me of the attempts by the third-century Roman emperor Decius to get Christians to make sacrifices to the gods of Rome, or at least toss in just a pinch of incense, to show their loyalty.  The years surrounding his rule was the subject of a chapter ( I contributed to the Christian History Project ( as one of several international writers and journalists working on the collection.
When put into historical context, one could make a case that the Obama Administration mandate is another attempt to get the faithful to go along with a government program by insisting that compliance is not really a violation of faith; it is just a pinch of incense and does not reflect what is in the heart.
Christianity, from its beginning, is a religion beset by persecution. The first generations of Christians faced more than government healthcare mandates. Their sufferings were great and their deaths were horrific. Emperors and villagers hunted them down and crucified them, or sewed them alive inside animal skins to be thrown to wild dogs. They covered the faithful with pitch and burned them as torches.
The first three centuries of Christianity saw the Romans trying to figure out what to do with the new religion, with emperors coming up with solutions that included a second-century form of "don't ask, don't tell", to what amounted to an imperial license to kill in Egypt where Clement, the third-century bishop of Alexandria, described daily burnings, crucifixions, and beheadings.
Christianity progressed relatively unabated between 212 and 249. Those troubles that did spring up were short-lived and limited to a city or region; therefore, few Christians of the time suffered for their belief, and even fewer had to choose between their lives and their faith. As a result, dark elements crept in like wolves among the flock. The large cities offered an unlimited buffet of temptations, seducing many Christians through pride and ambition. Even bishops succumbed to worldliness and gain.
The bishop Cyprian of Carthage described this time as a period when Christians dishonored the image of God, when they made and broke promises lightly, when rancor and hatred ran riot. He complained that marriages between Christians and non-Christians had sprung up and had broken down the apostolic tradition, and he rebuked members of the celibate clergy for engaging in questionable relationships with unmarried women.
The Roman Empire also was in crisis by the middle of the third century, a time not unlike today with doubt about the economy and corruption in the government and among the aristocracy. A bunker mentality was in play as Romans warred against Romans, as foreigners crossed the borders, and as a religious sect from the Middle East grew and became more visible.
When Decius became emperor in 249, he set out to restore Rome to its previous glory and grandeur; religion was the means to this end. Decius was not concerned with wiping out Christians; he just wanted them to give up a little of their faith, to offer a pinch of incense, for the greater good of Rome. After all, it was reasoned, God knows what's in our hearts.
Decius's "loathsome edict" had the unintended consequence of making Christianity a crime against the empire. Anyone not complying was presumed to be a Christian and subject to the most gruesome forms of capital punishment.
Events moved swiftly and outward from Rome. Parents and children could not trust each other, particularly if they were from households where Christians and non-Christians lived together as family. The weak in conviction looked to their leaders for guidance and strength, but many members of the clergy led their people down the easy road to perdition. Some clergy paid for their proof of sacrifice with bribes, while others went into hiding. Some sacrificed only after suffering tortures.
By 251, the fires of the persecutions were failing, because not everyone shared Decius's beliefs. As months went by, the edict appealed only to the baser instincts of the eastern rabble, which is why Christians and non-Christians breathed a general sigh of relief when Rome, in the absence of the emperor who had taken to the battlefield, refused to continue the persecutions.
By the time Decius died in the marshes in the summer of 251, the remaining Church was growing in strength, and would continue to get stronger as it faced more persecutions in the years ahead.  Sadly, but inevitably, many of those persecutions came from within, from Christian leaders who would assail and abuse their own people in sincere attempts to restore the faith and protect the Church.
Regardless of who requires it, every pinch of incense has its price.
John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from ShadeyHill Ranch in Texas.