There’s been a lot of wringing of hands lately among Christians and political conservatives (and those two don’t have to be synonymous; Christians have freedom, too, in politics) about the decline of the West. That means different things to different people, but in general there seems to be a fear that the liberal West (not liberal like left, but like liberal values, which political conservatives also historically hold) is on its deathbed, or at least a few steps away. Maybe it is. Who knows? I’m an historian, not a fortune-teller.
One of the first things trained historians learn is that history doesn’t repeat itself. It’s 101 stuff, the basics. History happens within a huge web of cultural, societal, economic, political, and religious influences and developments. History is driven by hopes and fears particular to certain times and places. We can certainly learn from history. Indeed, I think we ought. We are not repeating history, though. There are no one-to-one equivalents.
One observation people might hear quite often, especially when there is hand-wringing of whatever sort going on, is that this or that is just like Rome. Whatever trend has someone concerned, afraid, or unhinged gets associated, even directly equated, with whatever that person thinks contributed to the fall of Rome. There are several reasons this is never so clean as it seems, though. Two will suffice here. First, if you know why Rome fell, please tell me. I mean, if you have it boiled down to a few neat, tidy causes, I want to know. We can vaccinate ourselves, then. But history is seldom that tidy. Second, we dare not forget what Christianity actually did when it found itself in Rome’s realm.
What did Christians do, both when they encountered a Rome in its glory, as when Christ was born, and in it decline, as when Constantine tried to pull stuff back together and those who followed sought to stem the tide of outside threats and internal challenges? Christians confessed. Christians prayed. Christians proclaimed. In other words, Christians did what was given to them to do. They looked to the Savior and lived vocationally. Not perfectly, of course. And they, too, sometimes also did their own hand-wringing, but when Paul wrote to the Romans he was clear about the church’s call and focus:
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:11-17)
What about their hand-wringing? What about their efforts to save the culture? What about their calls to keep the Roman state strong, virile, nostalgic? Whatever of that they did doesn’t remain, at least not meaningfully, but their creeds do, Paul’s letters do, testimonies to their lives of service—which Christ freed them from fear to live—do, such as a tradition of hospitals, orphanages, prison ministry, etc.
Does this mean the Christian should remove herself or himself from the political sphere, from cultural discourse, from dialogue about how society might best benefit as many of their neighbors as possible, and as much as possible? Of course not. It does mean, though, that whether Rome falls or stands, Christ is present; whether Christians score their political, cultural, or societal points or not, all is lost if Christ is not the center and reason and motivation for all we say and do in these other realms.
As we made our way through Lent recently, as we remembered our Savior’s determined love, we saw Him stand before a Roman governor and submit to his unjust verdict. We saw Him do so for the good of neighbor, for you and me. As we study the Scriptures, we see Paul write and work and suffer to the same end, not to win our salvation, but to declare it, to make it known to the ends of the earth. As we move on in church history we see Augustine, for instance, recognize a Rome in retreat, in decline, and yet use this as an occasion, not to despair, but to remember the very heart of Christian teaching, that we have a Person and a message that transcends the here-and-now, even as we are called to live and serve and give glory in the here-and-now as well.
We are citizens of earthly nations. Our neighbors are here with us, on earth. We have earthly concerns, and rightly so. But our perspective isn’t so narrow, and our horizons aren’t so confined, that we should ever let the earthly drown out the good news entrusted to us and the most important work that the church has been given to carry out, which is to bring Christ to sinners, sinners like us, and sinners not like us, whether that be culturally, politically, or whatever the case may be.
No, history can never be just like Rome. It can’t be repeated. But perhaps we can try to be like the best of Christianity as it lived and labored under the Roman Empire or in its shadow. May our confession, our proclamation of Paul’s message to the Romans—the justification of the ungodly—and our lives, lived vocationally, live on, not for our benefit, but for the benefit of our sons and daughters and for our brothers and sisters who are not yet members of the fold but are sheep for whom the Savior died and for whom He still searches nonetheless.