28 November 2006

Addendum to Quo Vadis?

As it turns out, I'm still thinking about this book. I don't think I said much about this in my original post on it, but one thing that's really incredible about the text is the way in which it portrays, and gives a context for, early Christianity. The vivid contrast between the debauched, hedonistic ethics of the Roman world and the ethical worldview of Christianity is quite poignant. There is also a subtle critique of later developments of Christianity, most strongly of the fire and brimstone variety. The emphasis is on faith, love, and forgiveness. But where the text is really remarkable is in the way in which it illustrates the radical force of the "turn the other cheek" idea. And provides a political context for it. This has really stuck with me, and the force of it hit me even more last night as my friend Sean and I were discussing Christianity in America and the war in Iraq.

Christianity began as the faith of an oppressed minority, a small group pitted against the absolute power of the Roman Empire. That it rose to become one of the world's major religions is something of a miracle, and it seems to me that it put a bit of a strain on the ideology, in that what was originally the faith of the meek suddenly became the faith of those in control, and now what? I was thinking about this in the context of the War on Terror, or rather, the war against Islamic Fundamentalism. I mean, it's a tired cliche, but what would Jesus do? Would he be out hunting for Osama bin Laden? Well, if we're going from Quo Vadis, no, he most certainly wouldn't. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, did he resist? No. When the Christians were thrown to the lions, did they fight? At least in Quo Vadis?, they knelt and prayed and got eaten. In this text, at least, Christianity is presented as the ultimate power of passivity. They turn the other cheek like mad. This passivity, of course, ultimately wins them converts and proves to be quite the weapon in itself, but still. It's not a project of going out and righting the world, or fighting evil, it's a highly individual moral code. And obviously Quo Vadis? is a work of fiction, but still, I mean, the Bible explicitly states that THOU SHALT NOT KILL. It's pretty clear, no? So how does a Christian justify American foreign policy?

So what happened? What am I missing?

Well, here's one thought. The "turn the other cheek" ideology is all well and good in an age where you have to face a man to kill him, but it doesn't quite pan out in an age where the push of a button can exterminate a few million. The scale of violence possible these days, and the estrangement facilitated by technological development, make such a strategy untenable. And the shadow of the Holocaust looms large - turning the other cheek has become an ethical outrage.

Furthermore, there's been an increase in competition. At least in the Quo Vadis world, your options are basically Christianity, Judaism, and Pagan. Paganism is somewhat scattered, and severely lacking in moral fibre. Judaism is dark and mysterious and not exactly welcoming to strangers. So Christianity is quite the upgrade. Note that in the novel, one never sees any Jews converting - it's only the faithless pagans, who don't really have a religion to speak of anyhow. So Christianity never has to mount an argument as to why it's superior to a comparable faith.

In any case, it is a really fascinating aspect of the book, this view of Christianity on its home turf, so to speak.

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