Click here if you don’t see subscription options
David S. ToolanJuly 30, 2001

How did it happen that Christianity—which prided itself on its expansive love, extended even to enemies—should itself resort to violence? “More Christians,” writes Paula Fredriksen in a recent review (The New Republic, 6/18) of H. A. Drake’s Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance, “were persecuted by the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 than before.” Within a century of that event, bishops had become the engineers of urban violence, directing the Christian mob’s destruction of synagogues, great pagan temples and their Christian adversaries from one end of the empire to the other.

Constantine, Drake argues, was a canny politician. He knew that the empire’s well-being depended above all on the good will of the gods—which seemed to be uncertain at the time. What he needed was a stable political coalition that would guarantee his dynasty the mandate of heaven. Frustrated with the corrupt mechanisms of imperial governance, he had every reason to turn to a new cadre of talented men, the bishops, who were spread throughout the cities of the empire, were in constant touch with their urban power base and were expert at organizing opinion and administering resources. In an effort to create both an alternative judiciary and an efficient welfare system, the emperor channeled enormous resources and power to the bishops.

So what went wrong? By ceding too much to the bishops, Constantine lost control of the agenda. The bishops were too powerful to serve as mere pawns in the imperial game; they had a program of their own and ended up using Constantine to enforce party discipline, mainly against other heretical Christians. For a while, the synagogue was a relatively safe haven against Christian wrath, for unlike paganism and heresy, Roman law never outlawed Judaism.

The fact is that from the very beginning, the language of hate, exclusion and excision had coexisted in Christianity with the language of forbearance and love of enemies. Think of St. Paul fulminating against “so-called apostles” and “deceitful workers” (Gal. 1:6-10). Or the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, which just after the injunction to love one’s enemies issues a withering attack on false insiders who say “Lord, Lord” and will be cast out as “evil-doers” (Mt. 7:21-23). The Johannine epistles make a similar case: those who share the writer’s views are “of God,” whereas those who do not are “not of God” and belong to “the deceiver and the anti-Christ” (1 Jn. 2:18-19; 4:1-6; 2 Jn. 1:7-12).

Christianity inherited its theological exclusivism directly from Judaism. Jews in the Roman empire had made their peace with outsiders, but in-house battles over what it meant to be a Jew were especially fierce. “If Christians had been more like Jews,” writes Fredriksen, “they would have better tolerated pagans.... And if Christians had been less like Jews, they would have better tolerated other Christians.... Nowhere does Christianity more clearly reveal its Jewishness than in its intolerant response to its own diversity.”

Lacking the ethnic glue that kept quarreling Jews together, Christians of differing persuasions vilified one another with abandon, and once the empire became officially Christian, they did not hesitate to invoke the secular arm to crush their opponents. Tolerance, as they saw it, was a creed for losers. Equipped with paramilitary bands of roving monks and urban workers, orthodox bishops imposed their views, while the prestige of the monks justified the resort to violence.

This is an ugly story. It would take the bloodbath of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century before Europe finally began to shake off its addiction to religiously inspired violence and see tolerance as a virtue. And it would take even longer, perhaps not till Vatican II, for the Catholic Church to see that the beauty of the Gospel—and not arguments about who is number one or top dog—would provide all the motive we need for missionary outreach.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

a hand holds a smartphone displaying a new york times article about covid-19
In a time when we felt isolated, afraid and increasingly divided, The Times gave us a means to better understand what was happening and to stay connected with one another.
Jim McDermottMarch 27, 2023
A family sits around a table eating a meal
Imprisoned Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez appeared unexpectedly on Nicaraguan television March 24, more than six weeks after refusing to be exiled from his country, opting instead to face his sentence of 26 years behind bars. 
Woman walks along a bridge surrounded by trees
A Reflection for Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent, by Cecilia González-Andrieu
A man and woman sit close together and share an intimate moment in a play rehearsal .
“Love,” a new play by Alexander Zeldin, is not a grim report on poverty nor a blistering call for social reform, but simply lets the poor speak their own stories.
Rhoda FengMarch 27, 2023