Scratching at Wounds

Recently a friend posted this article on Facebook and asked for responses. If you don’t want to go read it, it’s called “Should the Catholic Church Acknowledge the Destruction of Classical Pagan Culture” and the byline reads “Debra Macleod, Relationship Author-Expert & Classicist.” I googled Ms. Macleod briefly, and it seems that her “classicist” credential is (possibly) her BA–as far as I can tell she hasn’t written any scholarly or popular work in Classics. None of that is to say that you can’t gain expertise in a subject without years of expensive schooling, but from this particular piece it’s clear to me that Macleod is no classicist.

She begins by citing a recent apology from a Christian to Jews for the Holocaust, and goes on to muse about whether the Catholic Church (which was not involved in the linked article, but which has apologized for its inaction during the Holocaust) should apologize for the Late Antique destruction of non-Christian shrines, temples, art, and, well, people. Strike one against Macleod–a classicist would know the differences between Classical culture and Late Antiquity, a glaring one being that there weren’t any Christians in the Classical period.

I don’t deny the destruction happened. Christians all over the Roman Empire defaced and destroyed non-Christian religious sites, sometimes as zealous individuals and sometimes as part of organized action by city- or region-wide Christian authorities. What concerns me is the tone of Macleod’s piece–she consistently refers to Christians as aggressors, entirely separate from and diametrically opposed to what she consistently calls “Pagans.” She uses words like “usurp” and “cultural destruction” that mask the slow history of cultural change that led to Christian domination of the West, and seems to be ignorant of (or happy to ignore) the ways in which Christian structure and aggression in Late Antiquity are identical to the Roman imperium only a couple of hundred years before. Aside from the fact that the word “pagan” to refer to non-Christian religion is for many reasons falling out of favor in the study of the ancient and Late Antique Mediterranean, the use of the capital P sets us up for confusion, implying that the modern Pagans (for whom it is appropriate to capitalize the term) are the direct heirs of ancient pagans (for whom it is not necessary).

The reason I feel strongly about this, and think that the attitude Macleod adopts in her article is harmful for Pagans, is because Pagans tend to view Christianity through the last 1500 or so years of its existence, and ignore the first 5 centuries, when Christians suffered the same persecution and violence that they later adopted for their own arsenal, and Pagans often talk about persecution and violence committed by Christians as if Christians were the first to torture people who worshipped the wrong way. I don’t see anyone suggesting that Religio Roma or Neo-Platonic Pagans should apologize for Pliny the Younger, who tells us in his own words that he tortured Christians, or Diocletian, who instigated one of the largest and most widespread persecutions of Christians in history. Many Pagans also tend to downplay or explain away the fact that for most of us of Western descent, Christianity is a much more recent part of our heritage and ancestry than polytheism. European groups that are completely non-Christianized are few and isolated. Pre-Christian practices, beliefs, and stories often persist, but they are often joined by and reimagined in light of Christianity. Not all Christianity looks like the 700 Club.

I think modern Pagans could learn a lot from early Christianity. We look a LOT like pre-Catholic Christianity in the diversity and grass-roots nature of our movement, and we face similar discrimination and misunderstanding from the culture around us. We would do well to note what happened when Christians finally came to power, and take care to keep from following in those footsteps should we ever have more power, instead of casting ourselves only as victims and Christians only as aggressors.

The question–whether the Catholic Church should apologize for the destruction of Late Antique non-Christian culture–creates a dichotomy that didn’t exist. Christians weren’t different from their neighbors, culturally or otherwise (beginning especially in the Hellenistic period, about 300 years before Jesus, Mediterranean culture and religion were increasingly diverse and multicultural, a lot like the modern West), and actually by the period that Macleod is discussing Christianity looks more and more like the state religion because, well, it was becoming the state religion. In a lot of cases it just gave new names and symbols to the old structures (or not–Pontifex was and continues to be the title for the highest priest in Rome), just like how modern Paganism took on and adapted the post-Enlightenment, Protestant structures and assumptions that all of its adherents grew up with.

So, should the Catholic Church apologize? What would that accomplish? The wounds from the Holocaust are still raw; many survivors are still alive, and their children and their grandchildren know their individual stories. And the Holocaust, for the most part, was perpetrated upon the Jews and Romany by outsiders. Shall the Church apologize to me for things my own ancestors were surely complicit in? For that matter, shall Iran apologize to Iraq for Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon?

Ultimately, the article is simplistic and caters well to the “CHRISTIANS BAD” mentality that’s common in a lot of Pagan and New Atheist circles. It has no sense of the subtlety of history or the myriad social, political, and historical forces that went into the spread of Christianity and the decline of philosophical religion and polytheism. These forces included violence and forced conversion, but not exclusively, and certainly not as inventions of Christianity. A lot of people converted willingly, sometimes in the face of torture and death by “pagans,” and in some ways stopped worshipping in the ways they had before, but in others kept right on with what they’d been doing for generations. Christianity didn’t “usurp” things like Saturnalia any more than I “usurp” Christmas when I celebrate it with my family. So it’s more appropriate to say, using Macleod’s problematic terminology, that in many ways Classical Pagan Culture became Christian and, where destruction happened as opposed to adaptation, destroyed itself.

This is important because it speaks to how Pagans think of ourselves as a movement as as participants in history. Christians were once the persecuted class, and their early texts are full of the evils of “the Jews” and the Gentiles,” referring to the Jerusalem elite and the Roman government that hounded them. Christians wrote their persecution into their scriptures, and look what it’s done for American conservative Christianity today. Having grown up in a persecution-minded Christian tradition, I know for sure that “they will hate us because we are Christian” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Paganism becomes more and more visible and accepted in Western culture, we have the opportunity to look to our future instead of dwelling on the wounds of our distant past.

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