Has my title caught your attention? You’re probably asking, “Why are you talking about climate change, Bill?”
I know it’s a debatable topic, but, no matter the position we take, imperceptible changes are happening on our planet. Here’s one small example.
My wife Peggy is a certified Master Gardener. At a recent workshop she learned how Ohio’s hardiness growing zones are subtly changing. Plants and trees once native to our area may soon struggle because of changing climate conditions. The silent, unseen, and slow impact of climate variation is having an effect.
Did you know another kind of climate change happened nearly eighteen hundred years ago . . . and it had nothing to do with temperature!
This change was also silent, unseen, and slow. The climate of Western European civilization changed from a predominantly pagan one (the worship of the ancient gods) to a Christian one. Nearly three-hundred years after the resurrection, Christianity gained legitimacy in the Roman Empire. A silent, unseen, and slow change had occurred in the religious climate.
How did a small Messianic Jewish sect located in an obscure part of the Roman Empire topple the ancient religions? One of the causes may surprise you. Let’s return to the early church to discover one catalyst for this change.
Life was hard in the Roman cities in the first century. Most families lived a squalid life in filthy and cramped quarters, where nearly half of all children died at birth or during infancy. Children who lived into their teen years could easily lose at least one parent before maturity.
The stench of the cites added to the bleakness of life. Cities must have been smothered in flies, mosquitoes, and other insects that flourish in stagnant water and exposed filth. No wonder life expectancy was less than thirty years.[mfn]Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1997), pg. 154.[/mfn] Not only was their physical life hard but the brutality of the culture and the erotic sexual elements added to this climate.
How could a faith movement with no legal authority and whose gatherings constituted a punishable offense create cultural climate change? The early church preached, and at its best practiced, love in a world of widespread brutality, sexuality, and death[mfn]Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, pg. 335.[/mfn]. Christian communities did not consider themselves an “in group” caring only for its members. They gave freely to those in poverty or in health crisis.
“Christianity’s sense of community and its universal charity were a major reason, if not the most important simple reason, for its growth and subsequent victory over the empire” writes historian Robert Weber.[mfn]Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism, pg. 57.[/mfn] This commitment to compassion was tested by the plagues that swept through the Mediterranean area.
The death tolls were horrific at the height of the plagues. In 250 C.E., 5,000 people died daily in Rome. When these epidemics swept through the cities, the explanatory and comforting ability of paganism and Greek philosophy was unable to provide hope or meaning. Most pagan priests simply fled the cities, leaving the Christians to care for the sick and offer an explanation for trials.[mfn]Stark (1997), pg. 84.[/mfn]
Dionysisus (writing about 260 C.E.) gives a first-hand report of the plague and the church’s response: “Most of our Christian brothers 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 . . . The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads . . . hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”[mfn]Stark (1997), pg. 83.[/mfn]
Historian Robin Fox notes that the church “gave a powerful counter to anxiety. Among second-century authors, it is the Christians who are most confident and assured. There is a magnificent optimism in [their theology].[mfn]Fox, pg. 331.[/mfn]” This magnificent optimism was demonstrated through compassion.
The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christianity’s success.[mfn]Henry Chadwick, The Penguin History of the Early Church, pg. 331.[/mfn] Christians created a “mini-welfare state” in an empire without safety nets for the poor. By the year 251 C.E., the resources of the church in Rome had grown so large that it was supporting more than 1500 widows and needy persons.[mfn]Chadwick, pg. 58.[/mfn] “The assistance provided by the church was impressive in a world where the government did not expect to undertake a generous program of social welfare.”[mfn]Chadwick, pg. 58.[/mfn]
The Christian movement’s example reached to the Emperor. After the church was legitimized by the Emperor Constantine, a succeeding Emperor (Julian the Apostate) tried to stem the tide of the Christian faith. He launched a campaign to motivate pagan charities to match the generosity of the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galation that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of the Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “benevolence towards strangers.”[mfn]Stark (1997), pg 84.[/mfn]
Paganism was utterly incapable of generating the commitment needed to motivate compassion and charity. Not only were many of its gods and goddesses of dubious character, “they offered nothing that could motivate humans to go beyond self-interested acts of propitiation.”[mfn]Rodney Stark, Cities of God (2006), pg. 31.[/mfn] “Loving your enemies” had no precedent in pagan thought. Rational pagan philosophy was capable of great heartlessness.[mfn]Fox, pg. 323.[/mfn]
Compassion and sacrifice changed the climate in the Roman Empire. Our brothers and sisters in the faith set a radical example for us. Without legal rights, tax deductions, or political power, they enacted cultural climate change through simple but generous obedience. This change was unseen, silent, slow, and enveloped in a big gospel.
This gospel was “big enough to embrace earth and heaven, this life and the next. They were concerned with labor relations, slavery, marriage and the family, the exposure of children, cruelty in the amphitheater and obscenity on stage . . . . There was not a dichotomy between a social and a spiritual gospel to these men [and women] who held a united concept of truth.”[mfn]Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, pg. 277.[/mfn]
The bigness of this gospel is embodied in ordinary people in ordinary places doing ordinary things. We don’t need social media campaigns, another celebrity charity concert, or one more church fundraiser. Cultural climate change happens through little acts of kindness to our neighbors. And these acts continue today.
It happens when a nurse volunteers to serve in a New York city hospital “hot spot.” It happens when a trucking executive spends extra time ensuring the safety of his truckers and loaders. It happens when a school teacher delivers food and supplies to a student’s needy family. Each of these Christ-followers lives out their faith in simple, compassionate, and generous ways.
As followers of Jesus, we can continue to bring about cultural climate change. We continue our faith heritage when ordinary people in ordinary places do ordinary acts of kindness because of an extraordinary God and a big gospel. What small acts of compassion are you doing in this pandemic? Climate change is more than a temperature fluctuation.
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1997), pg. 154.
- Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, pg. 335.
- Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism, pg. 57.
- Stark (1997), pg. 84.
- Stark (1997), pg. 83.
- Fox, pg. 331.
- Henry Chadwick, The Penguin History of the Early Church, pg. 331.
- Chadwick, pg. 58.
- Chadwick, pg. 58.
- Stark (1997), pg 84.
- Rodney Stark, Cities of God (2006), pg. 31.
- Fox, pg. 323.
- Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, pg. 277.