Growing up I remember being told from time to time that the United States was like Rome and that we could learn from Rome to help the United States learn how to avoid the mistakes of history. When I first heard these things I thought they were exciting and grand sounding. I knew Rome was big and powerful and supposedly had rules of government that somehow were supposed to have inspired our own somewhat. So the take away for me was that I was part of the grand march of history, repeating the stories of the great and powerful in the past.
However, the application of this idea was always kind of vague. Sometimes there was some suggestion of how the early Romans were free supposedly and we are free and the Roman's lost their freedom and we're about to lose ours or something along those lines. About the only concrete idea I ever seemed to take away from it was that supposedly Rome fell because God doesn't like it when people have too much unapproved sex and that therefore we needed to prevent our culture from being involved in too much unapproved of sex to prevent our falling like Rome. Then there was the distant future where after Rome lost their freedoms they persecuted lots of Christians, so supposedly I needed to keep my freedom or else somehow the government was going to go crazy and persecute me.
When I actually studied a little bit of Roman history, the whole concept blew apart for me. I couldn't find any evidence anywhere that societies rose and fell based on how much approved vs disapproved sex they were having or whom they were having it with. Rome was never particularly free, a aristocracy ruled pretty freely. The governance concepts, well, there are some vague parallels but not many of them and most of them fall apart on closer inspection. Sure, there were representatives elected to some councils, but those councils were made to be powerless and became more powerless as time passed. As for the Roman Empire being big and the US being big, well, I stopped feeling particularly proud of that parallel. The Roman empire produced a profound peace in its interior during the pax romana by conquering large amounts of territory. In the meantime anyone outside the Roman civilization were treated with military brutality to get them in the Roman world. The United States also has had a period of dramatic cruelty and barbarous behavior towards the people who held the land it wanted. Not something to be proud of. In fact, its so embarrassing that we seem to as a culture wish to forget the whole thing. I remember an email forward that was sent around some years ago where the writer gushed on about how America had never conquered land in order to occupy it or hold it as territory for its own benefit. Well, that might be true if you ignore Texas, Hawaii, the Philippines, the original boundaries of many Indian tribal lands, etc... You can surely argue that we have created a vibrant and powerful culture on the ashes of what we destroyed in many cases, and so did Rome. But I can't look on the past with unmixed pride.
As far as being persecuted, well, I no longer view not having my religious opinions and practices supported by the government as being persecuted. I no longer assume that government religious favoritism is a zero sum game where some religion is going to win government dominance so it might as well be mine so that more souls can be saved. And when I don't feel persecuted anymore, the comparison with Rome disappears.
I really stopped feeling like Rome had anything to do with the USA, or at least not in ways that I'd like to think about.
I picked up a book recently discussing the history of the early Christian time period in Roman history. And reading it, suddenly comparing Rome to the USA popped right back in my head. In the early Christian era, the author describes that both the pagans and Christians viewed that achieving doctrinal consistency was essential to securing the favor of God or the God's to their empire. When the Roman empire was wavering back and forth between glory and apparent imminent collapse it would have felt as if the forces of good and evil were battling and that a bit more effort towards piousness might turn the balance towards the temporal salvation of Rome. As the empire wavered, faith in the God's wavered and Christianity was ready to come in with the explanation that if the pagans converted to Christianity that God would favor them with glory and military might again. When Rome succeeded, the Pagans cheered that the God's had shown favor, discrediting the growing movement of Christians whose very presence tainted the chances of success. After Constantine, Christians still felt a need to purify land for God's grace by ensuring that heresy was stamped out. If heretics were allowed to run loose God's favor might withdraw, so it became a social duty to aggressively convert/harrass/kill heretics.
So when I think of all the appeals I have heard claiming that we are a Christian nation or that the government was only meant to protect religious freedom for Christians or that we need laws governed by a particular brand of Christianity in order to be favored by God in otherwise uncertain times, I hear the echos of Rome. Echos of screaming heretics burning alive, among other things.
I sometimes ponder the statement by Paul that God causes it to rain on the just and unjust. Paul concluded that God was only indulging the ignorance of the pagans, but that in order to obtain temporal blessings like rain the hearers would need to convert. But, time has passed and rain still falls on both the Godly and unGodly. But when you think about it, if God is really our Father, wouldn't we expect that being starved to death by a famine would be His way of dealing with children. Or, at least, I'd never imagine letting my children starve to death because of an obedience issue. I might be frustrated and use punishments to help teach principles like "don't run into the street" But I'd work to preserve life and minimize suffering. In the end, I think God sends rain on both the righteous and unrighteoud all the time- just like I feed my kids even when they are annoying.
3 months ago