Project Canterbury

Religion and Politics

By Algernon Sidney Crapsey

New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905.

Chapter VI. The Subjection of the Eastern Church to the State

On Good Friday, in the year 404, the church of Saint Sophia, in Constantinople, was a scene of wild confusion. The soldiers of the Emperor invaded the sanctuary, disturbed the sacrament of baptism, silenced the voice of the minister, stained the baptismal waters and the floor of the sanctuary with the blood of the worshipers; the sacred vessels were snatched from the altar, and the sacred elements of bread and wine were trodden under foot. It must not be supposed that the soldiers who were guilty of this sacrilege were heathen men, the willing instruments of heathen Emperors. On the contrary, they were nominally Christian soldiers, obeying the orders of a nominally Christian Emperor. The cause of the disturbance was the anger which had been roused in the imperial palace by the preaching of the Bishop of Constantinople. The bishop against whom this violence was directed is known [120/121] to history as Saint Chrysostom. The instigator of the violence was Eudoxia, wife of the Emperor Arcadius.

Only sixty-seven years had passed away since the death of Constantine, but in that brief period of time the whole character of the Roman world had been transformed. Constantine had removed the capital of the Empire from the city of Rome, on the Tiber, to the site of the town Byzantium, on the Bos-pliorus. The Emperor had seen at a glance the vast strategic importance of this site, commanding as it does, the water way from the East to the West, so he seized upon it and made it the seat of his Empire. Almost in a night he built a great city in place of the provincial town, and called it New Rome. The buildings of the new city were executed, says the historian Gibbon, by such artificers as the reign of Constantine could afford, but they were decorated by the hands of the most celebrated masters of the age of Pericles and Alexander. By the command of Constantine the cities of Greece and Asia were despoiled of their valuable ornaments, which were used to adorn this city of the Caesar. The new city, says Mr. Finlay in his history of [121/122] Greece under the Romans, was an exact copy of old Rome. It was inhabited by senators from Rome. Wealthy individuals, likewise, from the provinces were compelled to keep up houses in Constantinople; pensions were conferred upon them, and a right to a certain amount of provision from the public stores was attached to their dwelling. Eighty thousand loaves of bread were distributed daily to the inhabitants of Constantinople. For, though Constantine called the city New Rome, he could not fix that name upon his new capital. The people saw instinctively that this city had no right to the name of Rome. It was in no sense the creation of the Roman people. It was the arbitrary creation of an oriental despot; it was the genius and power of Constantine that brought this city into existence, and it was naturally called Constantinopolis, or the city of Constantine, and so it is called even to this present day. A city so built and so constituted could have none of the characteristics of ancient Rome. It was a city without a history. No traditions of ancient liberty haunted its streets and squares, as such traditions haunted the Appian Way, the Via Sacra, the Circus Maximus, and the Forum of old Rome. The Senate, transplanted from its [122/123] time-honored seat on the Capitoline hill, lost every vestige of its sacredness and of its authority. It was simply a useless appendage to the imperial court. The world was ruled, not from the Senate house, but from the imperial palace. It was not the conscript fathers that decided the fate of the nations; it was the eunuchs and the women of the court. The rule of the Sultan in Constantinople to-day is not unlike that of the Christian Emperors from the building of the city by Constantine to its conquest by the Turks in 1453. When the city surrendered to Mahomet II. it did not change its form of government; it only changed its master. It was an oriental despotism before its fall, and it has been an oriental despotism ever since.

At the death of Constantine there was a redivis-ion of the Empire, his three sons, Constantine, Constans, and Constantius, each taking a portion. But this division was of short duration. Constantine II. was killed in battle by the forces of his brother Constans, who in turn was murdered by his own soldiery; thus leaving Constantius sole ruler of the Empire. All of these Emperors were nominally [123/124] Christian. They took an active part in the affairs of the church. In the great conflict between the Arians and the orthodox bishops, the Emperors were sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other. Constantius banished Athanasius from Alexandria, and Constans gave the Alexandrian a triumphant welcome to Rome. Church and state were only different instrumentalities used by the Emperors to further their own ends. On the death of Constantius, his nephew, Julian, known as the Apostate, succeeded to the throne, and made one last effort to restore the ancient religion of the Empire. He surrounded himself with philosophers, banished the bishops from his court, and sacrificed at the altars of Jupiter and Apollo. But this attempt of the Emperor to revive the old faith ended in dismal failure. The people refused to follow him; they would not keep the festivals, nor bring offerings to the altars of the ancient gods. Julian himself had no real faith in the religion which he tried to restore. It was hatred of Christianity, rather than love of the ancient cult, which caused Julian to set up the one in opposition to the other. And we cannot wonder [124/125] that Julian felt bitterly toward the new religion. The Christianity of his day was not the religion of Jesus; it was the ecclesiasticism of Constantine and the bishops. The sons of Constantine, Christians though they were, had in true oriental fashion put to death the father of Julian and all his kindred, and had kept him in degrading inferiority. The young prince, in order to save his life, was obliged to practise the most consummate dissimulation. When the necessities of the Empire compelled Constantius to intrust Julian with the government of the west, the nephew was still followed by the jealous suspicion of the uncle, and was at last forced to raise the standard of revolt to insure his own safety. The death of Constantius left Julian in sole possession of the Empire, and he came to the throne embittered against existing conditions, and it was this bitterness that led him to revolt against the established religion. The doctrines of the church excited his derision, the divisions of the church caused him constant annoyance, and the ambition of the bishops and clergy roused his contempt; and he thought to get rid of the evils of his time by undoing the work of centuries and bringing back conditions that existed in the Roman world before the preaching of the [125/126] gospel of Christ. But such efforts to restore the past are always futile, and Julian died confessing that the Galilean had conquered. With his death the family of Constantine became extinct, and the Empire was once more the prize of the successful general. At the time of his death Julian was leading an expedition against the Persians. The army raised one of its leading commanders, Jovian, to the throne, who displaced a great number of brave generals and able functionaries whom Julian had appointed because of their zeal for paganism, and in their place put zealous Christians and restored Christianity as the established religion of the Empire. "From that period,"* says de Sismondi, "up to the fall of the Empire a hostile sect, which regarded itself as unjustly stripped of its ancient honors, invoked the vengeance of the gods on the heads of the government, exulted in the public calamities, and probably hastened them by its intrigues, though inextricably involved in the common ruin. The pagan faith, which was not attached to a body of doctrine, nor supported by a corporation of priests, nor heightened by the fervor of novelty, scarcely [126/127] ever displayed itself in open revolt or dared the perils of martyrdom; but pagans still occupied the foremost rank in letters, the orators, the philosophers (or, as they were otherwise called, sophists), the historians, belonged almost without exception to the ancient religion. It still kept possession of the most illustrious schools, especially those of Athens and Alexandria; the majority of the Roman Senate were attached to it, and in the breasts of the common people, particularly the rural population, it maintained its power for several centuries, branded, however, with the name of Magic." ["The Fall of the Roman Empire, J. C. L. de Sismondi, chap. v.]

But the ancient faith did more than simply stand aside in sullen opposition. Vast numbers of pagans conformed to Christianity without understanding its principles, or believing in its way of life, and these new adherents transformed the faith of Christ into the likeness of the ancient religion of Greece and Rome. They paganized and imperialized the church of Jesus. It was impossible that the idealism of Jesus should not suffer when it came in contact with the gross realities of the world. The religion of Jesus demanded a purity of heart and a simplicity of life which are impossible of attainment by the mass of mankind. The best that the average man [127/128] can do is to make some approach to the truth as it is in Jesus. Only choice souls, those in whom the moral and spiritual nature is developed in an extraordinary degree, can live the life that Jesus prescribed as the highest life possible to man. As long as man is of the earth, earthy, he cannot so much as comprehend the character and teaching of the man who lives in and for the spiritual and the moral. It was inevitable that the teachings of Jesus should be misconstrued by His followers, and depraved by the world at large. As soon as the religion of Jesus left its native heath of upper Galilee it began to suffer from the admixture of foreign elements. Paul, fervent follower of Christ, though he was, could not help darkening his Christian teaching with I^he subtleties and obscurities of the rabbinical schools. The writer of the fourth Gospel, steeped as he was in the philosophy of Plato as interpreted by the Alexandrian Jew Philo Judseus, could not help translating the teaching of Jesus into the terms of that philosophy with which he was most familiar. And when the new religion was torn from its Jewish origin and became the property of the Greco-Roman world then the Greco-Roman world transformed that religion into its own likeness. The Greek made [128/129] of Christianity a philosophy; the Roman made of it an empire.

With the philosophy which the Greek dialectic, under the name of theology, substituted for the religion of Jesus we have nothing to do in these lectures, only so far as the contentions of the church were used by the Emperors as a means for subduing the church to the imperial will. Our present concern is with the relation of the church to the state. With the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, the Christian commonwealth ceased to exist. That life which the Christians had led apart from the world was no longer possible. When everybody is a Christian nobody is a Christian. That doctrine of the primitive church which taught the communion of saints lost its meaning and remained in the creed, not as an active element in the Christian's faith, but only as an historical deposit.

While, as we have learned in a previous lecture, community of goods was not a precept or a practice for any length of time of the early church, yet community of life was. The early church was a mutual benefit society, in the goods of which every [129/130] member's share was according to his need. The bishops of the church were the fathers of the people, having with the father's authority the father's responsibility; [Apostolic Constitutions, bk. 4, ยง I.] with the care of the children as the uppermost thought in their minds, and the chief duty of their lives. With the establishment of Christianity all this was instantly changed. The gifts which the Emperors bestowed upon the clergy, the immunities which he granted them, soon directed the ambition of the average Christian entirely to ecclesiastical dignities. The bishop was changed at once from a hero to a sycophant. He was willing then, as he has, alas, been only too willing since, to condone every crime in the person of the ruler who was able to promote him to places of honor. For more than a century the spirit of Jesus struggled with the rising tide of corruption within the church. Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries was not without its saints and martyrs. But these saints and martyrs were not the official leaders of the church, or, if leaders, were driven forth from their leadership and made to suffer persecution for the cause of true religion. With the death of Jovian, the Empire fell into the hands of Valentinian, a brave and [150/151] worthy officer, who associated his brother Valens with himself in the cares of Empire, Valentinian reigning in the west, and Valens in the east. Valentinian established universal toleration by law and took no part in the sectarian controversies that divided Christendom. Valens was an Arian, and persecuted the Orthodox party. The Emperors, though they ceded the deity to God in Christ, still considered themselves as Pontifex Maximus, as the head both of the church and the state; and the fortunes of the various parties within the church rose and fell in accordance with the leaning of the Emperor toward one opinion or the other.

Gratian, the son of Valentinian, succeeded to the Empire of the west on the death of his father, and, finding himself unequal to the task of governing the distracted world, he chose with great magnanimity a man who was his enemy to share the throne. He adopted Theodosius a Spaniard, the son of a man whom he had sent to the scaffold, as his colleague, and placed him at the head of the armies. Theodosius was a devout Christian. He was baptized [131/132] during a serious illness by a Catholic bishop, and when he rose from his sick bed he issued his famous edict establishing the Orthodox or Catholic faith as the religion of the Empire. This edict reads as follows: "To the people of Constantinople--We desire that all nations who are governed by the rule of our clemency shall practise that religion which the Apostle Peter himself delivered to the Romans, and which it is manifest that the pontiff, Damasus, and Peter Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, do now follow, that, according to the discipline of the Apostles and the teaching of the Evangelists, they believe in the one Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty, and the Holy Trinity. We order all who follow this law to assume the name of Catholic Christians, decreeing that all others, being mad and foolish persons, shall bear the infamy of their heretical dogmas, and that their conventicles shall not receive the name of churches; they to be punished first by Divine vengeance, and afterward by that exertion of our power to chastise which we have received from the decree of heaven."

As we read this Edict of Theodosius we [132/133] wonder what has become of the Spirit of Jesus. Can these be the words of a disciple of the Prophet of Nazareth, who said "Resist not evil," and who from the cross prayed for his persecutors, saying: "Father forgive them; they know not what they do?" With this Edict of Theodosius we come to the parting of the ways at which the religion of Jesus and the Christianity of the church separated one from the other, never to meet again in history. The church in the days of her domination forgot the Lord and His teaching, and followed the way of the world. From this hour we begin to read the disgraceful history of persecution, not of the church, but by the church. A new and fearful crime came into existence with the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the world. Men had been punished of old for murder, for adultery, for robbery, and for arson. It was not until the days of triumphant Christianity that the crime of heresy was known and visited with imprisonment and death. The Romans punished the Christians, not as heretics, but as rebels; but when Christianity was set up in the world men and women were condemned for misplacing an iota or misconstruing a passage of scripture. It was dangerous to think, and fatal to express an opinion. It is impossible to compute [133/134] the injury which has come to mankind by the enforcement of the principle laid down in the Edict of Theodosius. It arrested the progress of Christianity in the east. For more than a thousand years the eastern church has been held in the iron hand of an inexorable orthodoxy. The great body of Christians receiving their religion from without, a mere imposition of authority, have long since lost the power of motion, and are an inert mass used to sustain the despotism that holds them in subjection.

From the days of Theodosius the eastern church suffered a rapid and mortal decline. It was Eu-doxia, the wife of Arcadius, the son of Theodosius, who drove St. John Chrysostom into exile, and, seeing the fate of this saint, no bishop dared thereafter to brave the wrath of the women and the eunuchs of the palace. Ecclesiastics became the most courtly of men, and bowed low in the antechambers of the mistresses and favorites of the reigning Emperor. The great bishops of the fifth century had no successors. It required men of baser mold than Basil and the Gregories to gain and hold the favor of the Eudoxias, Pulcherias, and Theodoras, and women of like character who, during the sixth and succeeding centuries, were the real rulers [134/135] of the eastern Empire. For it was then, as always, in every decadent civilization it is the decadent women that rule the world. It took three hundred years for the Christian religion to become the established religion of the Roman world, and it took just three hundred years for that religion, as established, to fall from its high place, to become, not a dominant, but a subject, religion,--a religion which is allowed to exist simply through the contemptuous toleration of its conquerers.

In the year 620, just three hundred years, less five, after the sitting of the Council of Nice, which fixed the creed of Christendom and made heresy a crime, Mahomet, the Arabian prophet, made his hegira from the city of Mecca to Medina. This hegira or flight of the prophet marks the beginning of the Moslem epoch. Within a few years of the death of the prophet Galilee and Judea, the original home of Christianity, together with Syria and the east, were forever lost to Christendom and to the Empire. Christianity, depraved by a corrupt priesthood, weakened by secession after secession of Nestorian, Eutychian, and other heretics, worn out by endless contentions, worshipping trinities, [135/136] angels, saints, and martyrs, had no power to withstand the enthusiasts who rushed, out of the Arabian desert with their stern, monotheistic creed. And for the next thousand years the history of the east is the history of the Moslem conquest. The Christian church, the subservient instrument of Christian imperialism, has become the equally subservient slave of Moslem despotism. To this day the patriarch of Constantinople holds his office subject to the will of the Sultan. Having taught passive obedience for so long, the eastern Christian has lost all knowledge of and power for passive resistance. He is the slave to the Sultan because he is also a slave to the church. His blind orthodoxy is largely to blame for his tame submission to outrage.

Before the fall of Constantinople the eastern church made one important conquest for Christianity. It was the eastern church that added Russia to the domain of Christendom. But the conversion of the Russians was not the work of an army of zealous missionaries hazarding their lives for the faith; it was the work of the Byzantine court. Vladimir, the ruler of the Russians, demanded the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor in marriage. His baptism was made a condition of granting his prayer. [136/137] Nothing loath, this barbarian, who is described as a monster of cruelty and licentiousness, went to Constantinople and was duly baptised and received into holy church. Returning to Russia, Vladimir ordered his subjects to proceed at once to the nearest river and be baptized. This imperial decree was implicitly obeyed, and so Russia became Christian and Orthodox, and Christian, and Orthodox Russia has remained to this present day.

The Russian church as it exists to-day is a perfect example of one phase of the imperialized church. In Russia the church has no separate existence; it is simply a function of the state. The Czar is the head of the church. The affairs of the church are in the keeping of a bureau of the government. The officer presiding over this department of state is the High Procurator of the Holy Synod, and is always one of the ablest, as he is one of the most powerful, men in the Empire. Podobenoszew, who has held this office during the reigns of Alexander III. and Nicholas, the present Czar, is one of the makers of the modern world. He ranks as a moulding influence with Gladstone, Bismarck, and Leo XIII. A fanatic by nature and a reactionary from [137/138] policy, he, more than any other person, is responsible for the present condition of the Russian Empire. He rules the church with a rod of iron, and looks upon the slightest innovation either in doctrine or in ritual as a crime against the Czar. He was opposed to the emancipation of the serfs, and has set his face rigidly against making any concessions to the liberal sentiment of the country. For ages the church has aided and abetted the state in its cruelties and its tyrannies, and consequently the church is sharing to the full in that hatred which the awakening Russian has for all the institutions of his country. Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and other Russian writers have revealed to us the attitude of the enlightened Russian toward the established church. The sight of the church fills them with loathing and horror. They look upon it as the Judas that has betrayed Jesus. No where in the world are the teachings of Jesus so entirely separated from the doctrines and practices of Christianity as by the Reformers in Russia. Tolstoy is a disciple of Jesus. He believes that in the teaching of Jesus is to be found the salvation of the world. The saying of Jesus, "Resist not evil," is to him, as we have already learned, the cardinal doctrine of the Lord, [138/139] the key to His gospel. Tolstoy has forsaken the court, and given up a brilliant worldly career that he might live the truth as it is in Jesus, and Tolstoy has for the church all the contempt and hatred of the nihilist. The doctrines of the church are, in the estimation of the great novelist and thinker, words without meaning; the ceremonies of the church are senseless forms; the government of the church, a grinding tyranny. In his reaction against the existing church, the liberal Russian has gone to the extreme of including what is good and bad, wise and foolish, true and false, in the same condemnation. But for this, not the revolutionist, but the imper-ialized, fossilized church, is to blame. The church has betrayed the cause of Jesus and the cause of the people, and the day of reckoning is at hand. The inert mass of the Russian people is moving with the slowness, it may be of a glacier, but, like the glacier, it is moving and grinding under its dead weight, ancient tyrannies and worn-out customs. There is more to hope from Russia than from any other Christian country to-day. Its reformation in the church and revolution in the state are yet to come, and when they do come they will be far more radical than the reformation and revolution in the west. [139/140] In the next generation we may look to Russia for a new birth of religion and a new birth of liberty. The doctrine of passive resistance and communistic living have a stronger hold in the great Empire than anywhere else in the world. The bomb-throwing nihilist is simply retarding the movement that is at last to make the Russian the most Christian and democratic of the nations. Before the present century has finished its course Russia will be free both in church and state.

During the present century we may also expect a great awakening throughout the whole eastern church. Influences are at work loosening the iron bonds of orthodoxy which have cramped eastern Christianity since the days of Theodosius; and with the breaking up of orthodoxy will come the revival of religion and the renewal of life. Already the days of Islam are numbered. Mohammedism is a spent force. The religion of Jesus liberated from the swathing bands of pseudo intellectualism and an effete ceremonialism will reconquer the birthplace of Jesus, and make the countries of the east obedient to the faith. But it will be the religion of Jesus, not the religion of the church, that will regenerate the world. The love of the Father and the [140/141] love of the brethren will bring peace to distracted nations and churches.

The church in the east, from the days of Theodosius, has been simply a function of the state, and has been used by the state to support the policy of the state. The church has blest the armies of the state, when those armies have gone out to lay waste countries, to burn cities, to murder men, to ravish women, and to enslave children. There is no crime which the church will not condone, so only it is done in the name of the state. From Ivan the Terrible to the Czar Nicholas the autocrat of Russia has found in the clergy the ready instruments of his cruelty and despotism. The clergy are dependent on the Czar and dependence is the fruitful parent of slavery. When the state and the church are one it is always the state that is the one; the church is only a fraction of the unit. An imperial church in an imperial state must either subjugate the state, or be subjugated by the state.

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