Sunday, July 13, 2014

19) A History of Domination

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19) A History of Domination

The Institution of the Church
The Voyages of Christopher Columbus
Voyages of Christopher Columbus
Historically, the discovery of the New World signals the conclusion to Europe's introverted Middle Ages and an expansion of scientific and rational reason. The Christian Church was, by then, at the peak of its power. After obtaining a toehold on power at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, it then emerged from squabbling Christian street-gangs of numerous Christian sects to streamlined canonic singularity, with direct access to Emperor Constantine's throne. However, this was only achieved at a price. Enforcement of singular canon law required executive power as well as painful consequences for those who, in the church's view, failed to adhere.

Ecclesiastical Power Struggle

At the peak of the fourth century's controversy over Christian doctrine, there were more than a half dozen different sects along with sub-divisions of each sect, with often-contradictory scriptures regarding the very divinity of Christ. Subsequently, shrewd and oftentimes advancement-seeking bishops within the Church competed to align themselves directly behind an emperor donning the mantel of Saint Peter as Pontifex Maximus.

Bishops jockeying for position
Bishops jockeying for position

Executive Control

A transfer of power wasn't necessarily planned by Church leadership and had actually been set in motion by the Emperor himself. Constantine quite tactically (deliberate or otherwise) initially increased his support amongst the predominately Christian military forces by proclaiming he had seen a vision of the cross immediately before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Subsequently, Constantine miraculously victory and ascent to the throne, after Emperor Maxentius was killed in the battle, won him considerable newfound support. The shrewdly appreciative emperor then consolidated support for his newly acquired office by eliminating persecution and legalizing Christianity with the 313 CE Edict of Milan. His next step was to end dissension caused by conflicting beliefs within the Church. Planned or otherwise, the emperor's final ascension to head of the Christian church occurred when he ordered and presided over a congress of bishops to standardize Christian beliefs at the Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE.

Pontifix Maximus Augustus
Pontifix Maximus Augustus
Even though Christianity had not yet become the official religion of Rome (Edict of Thessalonica, 380 CE) and Constantine himself would wait until his deathbed before becoming a baptized member of the Christian faith, all emperors since Augustus had held the uniquely secular/religious title of "Pontifix Maximus". Since before Rome and well into ancient Greek rule, Hellenistic beliefs were intermingled with secular government functions. Upon paying taxes or obtaining a marriage license, a religious sacrifice would be offered. Consequently, for Christianity to become the supremely dominant religion, the Emperor would have to once again preside as its state head. Not only did the bishops acquiesce, the Bishop of Rome, considered in the West to be the true successor of Peter, agreed to the council. Consequently, Pope Sylvester I was absent and instead sent two legates (presbyters Vitus and Vincentius) in his stead.

Limited Consolidation

By the end of the Council, some consolidation of general beliefs would be established within a doctrinal statement which would then act as a foundation for future canon law. Still, it would be sometime before conflicting beliefs in the divinity of Christ would be resolved. However, before this could occur some scriptures from numerous sects, including Gnostic and Arian, had to be discarded, in some instances, Constantine ordered them to be symbolically burnt before him. Subsequently, a handful of bishops emerged who were inline with each other and the Emperor.

Heretics burning at the stake
Heretics burning at the stake
However, in order to have all Christians adhere to new gospel guidelines, as well as the ongoing development of ecclesiastical canon, there had to be considerable consequences for those who disobeyed or floundered. The answer was to revive the Judaic condemnation known as heresy.  Only then could the Emperor, seated firmly at its head, bring the full power of government to enforce canonic edicts.

Ironically, it had been charges of Talmudic Heresy that led to the arrest, Sanhedrin trial, and scourging of Christ (not the crucifixion, which was for the different crime of "sedition" against the state of Rome). Subsequently, it was because of continued accusations of heresy that the early Apostolic Church eventually separated itself from Judaism and became a new and independent form of monotheism. Now, centuries later, heresy would be embraced anew by the very followers of Christ.

Heresy as a Policing Force
After Nicaea, all who disagreed with, misquoted or misinterpreted subsequent canon were subject to arrest, torture, excommunication and even death. Initially, members of the Christian sects who had been disenfranchised would either acquiesce or flee. Those who fled would resettle on the outskirts of the empire. There they would continue their brand of Christianity far from the watchful eye of Constantinople, the new seat of Church power.

  • Note: A seventh century descendent of the Christian Gnostics, casted out by the Nicaea council, was the Syrian hermit named Bahira. Bahira would approach a nine year old boy accompanying a camel caravan and proclaim him to be a great prophet, that youth was Muhammad. 

The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Religious Persecution
Religious Persecution
As the Church grew, it not only eliminated its own internal rivals (Gnostics, Arians, Adoptionists, etc.) but those of competing faiths. As early as the rule of Constantius II (324-361 CE) the tables had turned against the declining members of Hellenistic beliefs. Later, shortly after Emperor Theodosius (379-392 CE) took the throne, he issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, outlawing all forms of polytheism as heretical. Finally, the Christians were persecuting those who had persecuted earlier Christians.


Beginning with the 12th century, many began questioning the Church. As time went on, many voiced their opinions of the Church and, in particular, the Pope, stating he had acquired too much power or he had even gone off Christ's path. On a theological note, there were those who believed the deification of so many saints and the ongoing veneration of the Virgin Mary (sometimes referred to as the Cult of Mary) were beginning to conflict with core beliefs, even becoming forms of pagan polytheism. To counter it's growing critics and waves of Protestantism, Rome instituted "The Inquisition", a judicial system within the Church whose mission it was to combat heresy and, ultimately, silence dissenting voices throughout Europe.

The awakening of sleeping America
The awakening of sleeping America

By the dawn of the early modern period and the discovery of the New World, the western Latin Church had freed itself of the eastern Byzantine Empire to become the kingmaker in the west.

Europe's monarchs had to tread lightly when confronted by a bishop, cardinal or pope, for to be above the Church was to be above Christ himself, and therefore heretical.

By the ninth century the Church had also accumulated temporal power and the territories known as the Papal States. The Church could gather enough support to initiate wars with usurping monarchs, employing the aid of bordering monarchs loyal to Rome. During the Italian Renaissance Pope Julius II launched wars of his own and was involved in three armed conflicts within just two decades. However, the Church's most outstanding instance of war declaration was at the Council of Clermont in November of 1095, when Pope Urban II (later beatified a saint) insisted it was God's will (Deus vult) that all of Christendom render volunteers and go to the Holy Land (covered earlier on) to wrest the land from the Islamic "demon worshipers", forever changing the world with two centuries of conflict. Pope Urban also granted all who participated "immediate remission from sin".

Enforcing Catholic Orthodoxy

As the Reconquista concluded on the Iberian Peninsula towards the end of the 15th century, the Church became challenged with its own forced conversion of Jews and Moors who accepted Christian rule. After the discovery of the New World, monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I, instituted their own Spanish Inquisition or the "Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Spain", to further enforce Catholic orthodoxy.


Pandora's Box

Quite paradoxically, Catholic Europe was embracing Moorish mathematics, architecture, astronomy, agriculture and waves of scientific discovery while the Church itself became an increasing impediment to technology and progress. Moreover, the Spanish, who had proven the world round and not flat, were themselves questioning outdated Christian concepts of the universe while expanding the very Inquisition that challenged those questions to be heretical. Nevertheless, most conflicts would continue until eventual resolution.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition
Nowhere in the Bible could the Church site scripture confirming the world to be flat, nor could a verse be found confirming or denying the effects of heavenly bodies upon the earth. Nevertheless, free thinking beyond the precepts and harsh judgements of the Church was slow to arrive. Subsequently, the early modern period can be summarized in one word, "exploration".

Modern shipbuilding was enabling sea travel beyond the horizons. Non-Christian, Moorish influences were replacing outdated notions of farming, architecture, mathematics and the earth's place in the universe. Suddenly superstitious assumptions held by many in the Christian Church to control its congregations across Europe were being questioned. Pandora's box, which had been held shut by overbearing ecclesiastical control and its rule of heresy, had spilled open. Like no other time before in the history of civilization, exploration and discover would begin to run rampant on all frontiers of human endeavor.

The discovery of the New World simultaneously marks the beginning of the end for medieval thinking and the struggling start of the modern era. There would be no turning back and the world could never be the same again.

Go to: Chapter 20) Nationalism

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