My first thought when I saw news of the recent riots in North Africa and Southwest Asia, particularly the one in Benghazi resulting in four deaths, including the U.S. ambassador, was that, “Wow, they’re acting just like early Christians!”.
In 325 C.E., the Council at Nicaea was decided not by prayerful consideration and spiritual discernment of truth but by the winner of the street battles between the Athanasians and the Arians (both Athanasius and Arius were presbyters from Alexandria, then the city of the empire second only to Roma itself). If not the sole deciding factor, it was at least a major consideration.
A large part of this was due to fact that the council was not called by the Church but by the Roman Empire, over which Constantine the Great then reigned. At the time, Constantine carried the title Comes Solis Invicti, or Companion to the Unconquered Sun (and did until his death). He himself was Arian in sympathy, and was later baptized by one of Arius’ followers; Arius himself was too dead to perform the office himself, having been poisoned by disciples of Athanasius.
The “Triumph of Christianity” came about more because of the Edict of Thessalonika in 380 C.E., which made it the official religion of the empire, and because of persecution and attacks by Christians upon temples and other facilities as well as upon pagan believers than due to mass conversion by people convinced of its truth. Many of the stories told about persecutions OF Christians by pagans are in truth stories of persecutions BY Christians of pagans.
In 391, Theodosius outlawed and ended a large number of pagan practices, including the extinguishing of the eternal flame at the Temple of Vesta and the disbandment of the Vestal Virgins. In response, Christians rioting in Alexandria destroyed the Serapeum, the chief temple to the syncretic Hellenistic god Serapis, whose much older cult mirrored that of Jesus on very many embarrassing points. The mobs then destroyed the city’s Museum and burned its Great Library with all its books, a cultural atrocity I named as one of the 10 greatest disasters in world history.
Theodosius ended the ancient Olympic Games and closed the Oracle at Delphi in 393 C.E.
In another notable riot in 415 C.E., also in Alexandria, Christians dragged mathematician and widely-respected philosopher Hypatia, daughter of the last director of the Great Library, from her chariot in the street, stripped her and dragged her naked through the streets to the Caesareum where they flayed her alive with sharpened sea shells, dismembered her body, then immolated her remains. The crowd taking part was inspired in their actions by Bishop Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria later declared a “saint”.
These are only a very few examples of riots, attacks, and persecutions by Christians of ancient pagans that resulted in the “Triumph of Christianity”. To the argument that those events were 1600 years ago, I point to the Crusades, the Inquisitions, witch hunts, and, for more recent events, the Sabra and Chatilla massacres in Beirut 1982 perpetrated by a Christian militia, and a period of Northern Ireland history known as The Troubles (1969-1998).
But wait, one might say, you can’t paint a whole religion with one brush wielded by a radical extremist few.
Au contraire, I respond.
If the Church is indeed the Body of Christ, that Body is one whole with all its parts, even those damaged, infected with disease, or suffering some other aberration. Following the logic of those who blame all the Ummah (community) of Islam for the actions of a comparatively miniscule few Salafis, a person with a minor basal cell carcinoma should be euthanized to kill the tumor.
My second response to the riots, nearly simultaneous to the first, came in answer to a post on Facebook by a close friend who is Muslim and was that, “Don’t they realize that Allah doesn’t need their help?”. The mysterious name “Allah”, by the way, is nothing more than the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew (and Canaanite and Phoenician) word “El”, meaning God.
The rather tacky film “The Innocence of Muslims” was produced by Egyptian-American immigrant Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and three other Coptic Christian extremists, who contracted porn director Alan Roberts to actually make the film. Tasteless, yes, but entirely within the bounds of what is allowed by the First Amendment.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians are often discriminated against and sometimes persecuted and attacked, so we might feel some sympathy with these men’s feelings of aggrievement even while we deplore their bad taste. As a matter of fact, it was the 1 January 2011 bombing of Coptic churches in Alexandria that served as a prelude to the uprising which overthrew the Mubarak regime. What Nakoula and his friends ignore is that the Muslims who first occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo and similar public space in Alexandria first came out to protect the Christmas processions of their Coptic Christian compatriots who later stood with them.
The largest blame for the current troubles lies not with the bad taste of Nakoula and his friends but with evangelical Florida pastor Terry Jones of Quran-burning infamy. Not content with having directly caused the deaths of numerous U.N. workers in Afghanistan, Jones apparently wanted to add to his body county. The largely-ignored film directed by Roberts rested in well-deserved obscurity for over a year until Jones had its trailer translated into Arabic and uploaded to Youtube.
Given the reaction in the past to the vidclip of his Quran-burning, Jones could have expected no other result than what he got. It’s the digital equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and therefore a hate crime. Since deaths have occurred as a result of that hate crime, Jones is guilty of felony murder, and because they collaborated in these actions, Nakoula & Co. are co-conspirators. Nakoula’s attempt to blame the film on Jews reminds me of Charlie Manson’s attempt to start a race war with the Tate and Labianca murders in 1969.
Postscript: No accounting of Christians rioting for light and transient causes can be complete without mentioning the hundreds, even thousands, of times Christians in Europe attacked their Jewish neighbors en masse for such spurious reasons as alleged desecration of consecrated Eucharistic hosts or alleged blood sacrifice of Christian infants. Tens of thousands of innocent Jewish men, women, and children were murdered either in these riots or executed on dubious charges, including by burning at the stake. Not to mention the Spanish Inquisition, which was directed against both Jews and Muslims on the Iberian peninsula.