The Common Good

Are Christians Bad for an Empire's Economy? Should They Be?

Mike recently brought to my attention a letter written by Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan written around 111 C.E. concerning persecution of Christians. I found it fascinating for the insight it gave into what Christian communities were like back in the early days of the church. Pliny obviously was trying to figure out what to do with this strange bunch of heretics and was seeking advice from the Emperor as to how he should proceed in the persecutions. I found it interesting, from an egalitarian perspective, that when he wanted to find out more about these Christians, Pliny mentions capturing and torturing two slave girls who were deaconesses in the church. But beyond that what I found most fascinating were the impact Christians were having on the local economy.

Pliny mentions that once he ramped up the persecution of Christians and insisted on their following Roman customs (like venerating the emperor), certain changes occurred in the culture. He mentions that the Roman temples, once deserted, were once again being filled, and religious rites practiced. And that the market for sacrificial animals, which had all but dried up, was once again flourishing. He proudly asserts that these Christians had been reformed into dutiful citizens of the Empire.

It intrigues me that Christians simply being who they are could so impact an economic system to the point that suppliers for animals to sacrifice to idols almost died out. It took the Empire persecuting and torturing Christians in order to restore that way of life and for the economic system to revert to the way things had been. I can't help but notice how the situation is reversed for Christians today. Instead of subverting the unjust economic systems of Empire, we have married it to our faith. For many it is our Christian duty to uphold the economic system of our government. In fact those who question the system, or even question small parts of that system, are labeled as unpatriotic and (therefore) unchristian. It is those who stand with the poor and the oppressed, who choose not to give their money to false gods and unjust entities, that face ridicule for their faith these days.

I wonder what it would take for Christians these days to have such a significant economic impact on a part of our culture that it starts freaking the government out. What if we all choose not to buy products made by slave labor? What if we choose not to invest in companies that provide brothel visits with trafficked children as incentives for businessmen? What if we only bought clothing or food for which workers were paid a living wage? Would we maybe then be known for being something other than the lapdogs of Empire? I don't want to incur persecution, but if you are messing with the powers that be (especially the economic powers that be) then persecution is bound to follow. These Christians lived out their beliefs and seemingly had profound impact until the Romans started pressuring them to abandon their values. Are we even ready to admit that our faith has something to say to economic systems much less live out Christian values in that realm?

Julie Clawson is the author of the forthcoming book Everyday Justice (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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