Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 595.
Julian’s “favorite thoughts were to protect the oppressed of all nations and religions, to promote the well-being of all his subjects, more especially by alleviating the burden of taxes, to revive the philosophical sciences, to restore the ancient religion, freed, however, from its most conspicuous blemishes, which had rendered it so contemptible and ridiculous; finally, to confine Christianity, which had gained so much power during so short a period, within its proper limits.”
Graetz is discussing Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor from 361-363 C.E. Unlike his predecessors and successors, Julian was not a Christian. Rather, he was a pagan who detested Christianity. To his credit, he reversed the persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Holy Roman Empire. He actually tried to rebuild their temple, but that project was cut short when he died in battle. And Christians were quick to affirm that Julian’s death was God’s punishment of him for leading Rome away from Christianity.
Did Julian persecute Christians? From what I read in Graetz and other sources (well, wikipedia), Julian didn’t kill Christians, but he did try to isolate them from Roman society by cutting them off from its intellectual life. For example, Christian teachers couldn’t use pagan sources, which were crucial in Roman education.
I guess what this quote illustrates for me is the different ways that people emplot events. Julian was a good man, on some level. He valued justice and philosophy. He relieved his persecuted Jewish subjects. He didn’t buy into the anti-intellectualism or anti-Judaism of certain Christians in his empire. He was somewhat like John Walton: he was a good man who was searching for God in some manner, but he didn’t care too much for organized Christianity.
But, the way Christians emplotted it, God didn’t care about the good things that Julian did. Julian didn’t embrace their narrow Christian doctrine, and so God wasn’t on his side. God punished Julian, leading to the rise of emperors who reinstated the Christian policy of persecuting Jews.
A question often enters my mind when I hear evangelicals emplot events, for instance, like when they say that a liberal, non-fundamentalist professor is of Satan while the bold (obnoxious) fundamentalist Christians are of God: Is God really that narrow-minded? If so, why would I want to worship such a God? Because he’s bigger and stronger than me?
Things never quite work out in my life as the fundamentalists emplot. When I was at DePauw, I went to an evangelical Bible study group, and the Christians there were talking about how they planted seeds for God on “gay day.” The way they told it, God was clearly on their side, and they were winning souls for God on the spiritual battlefield.
One day, I noticed that a woman was setting up a table for gay day, so I went outside to witness to her. “God will use me to bring this woman to repentance,” I thought. So I went out and asked her what she thought about religion and homosexuality. After she gave her response, I was about to share with her my evangelical spiel, when she suddenly cut me off. There were others there who needed her help. She handed out ribbons to people who had gay relatives–and, believe me, admitting support for homosexuals was not exactly in at DePauw, especially not in fraternities! One of the students receiving a ribbon said that his brother was gay, and he projected an attitude of “I want to support my brother, but I hope no one is seeing me.”
I guess what I’m trying to convey is this: my evangelical spiel looked pretty shallow in the face of all this. God wasn’t dramatically using me in that incident, as he supposedly used my Christian friends. And the whole emplotment of good vs. evil didn’t seem to fit in that situation. A student was trying to support his gay brother. What is evil about that?
But let’s look at the secularist side. Julian looks like a hero, but he wasn’t all that tolerant towards Christians. That’s the way it often is with secularists or liberals who preach “tolerance”: they’re not exactly tolerant of conservatives or Christians. They want to ban Intelligent Design from public schools in the name of “science,” or they seek to remove religion from the public sphere, period. Julian did good things, but he wasn’t all that tolerant of people he disagreed with. His bad!
So is there a point in all this morass? I guess my point is that I have problems with all sorts of narratives: conservative Christian and secular. They end up simplifying reality too much, and they’re not that tolerant to people with other perspectives.