In the sermon and the articles this week, we’ve done a lot of deconstruction of the purity model. But I want to share a historical example of how Christians changed the world by subverting the purity model. By getting dirty, by getting exposed, the early Christian church transformed an empire.
In his 1997 book, the Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark tries to unpack the reasons for the undeniable historical fact that from the death of Christ to 300 AD, Christians grew from a tiny cult of fewer than 1000 in 40 AD in Jerusalem to over 5 million – over 10% of the Roman population. Stark is a Mormon (I believe) but isn’t interested in spiritual reasons for this growth. He tries to look only at historical and sociological reasons for the growth. In other words, observable facts that might help to explain this dramatic change in society. He doesn’t deny material factors, but he wants to see what social science can teach us.
The book is fantastic in exploring the way the Christians acted and spoke and how it drew people in and transformed them. He talks about the role of women and slaves, the role of belief in the afterlife and social cohesion in a chaotic time.
But the chapter that I found most interesting was chapter four – “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion”. In it, he talks about the various epidemics of plague that swept through Roman Empire. In 165AD and 251 AD, two plages devastated cities and social networks. Death rates from 7% to over 50% were estimated. These plagues were socially and psychically devastating, killing a significant percentage of the community. Communities were shattered and individuals couldn’t make sense of the world in light of it.
Christian preachers like Cyprian and Dionysius helped people make sense of death and loss and reminded them of the hope of the resurrection. But they also urged Christians to keep showing love and charity no matter what. This is what made the difference. The Christian community rallied to care for people in the face of death and disease, while pagan family members fled for safety when the first signs of contagious disease appeared.
Galen, the most famous physician in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius had no ability to heal the sick and so he fled the cities and rode out the disaster in his wealthy country home. A few centuries before, Thucydides recorded what happened to the sick when they were left behind in a plague; people “died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention.”
Christians did not react in the same way. They crossed two purity boundaries – caring for the diseased in their own families, and caring for sick strangers and enemies left behind. Dionysius, an early bishop, wrote the following in an Easter letter;
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning height commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
A century later, the pagan Emperor Julian wrote to the high (pagan) priest of Galatia;
“that the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’” In a letter to another priest he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, every one can see that our people lack aid from us.” These observations caused Julian to launch a campaign to institute pagan charities “but for all that he urged pagan priest to match…Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.
Did this mean that early Christians died of the plague, maybe at a higher rate than others? Almost certainly. But they saved more. And they rebuilt the communities with those who survived.
This was not strange for the Christians. After all, they were only following Jesus who said that ‘who visits the sick, in my name’ will surely not lose their reward (Matthew 25).
What will be said about us, the Christians who face different crises in our cities and country today?