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There are several historical facts that we know about the rise of Christianity. I’m meaning now purely undisputed historical facts. We know that Jesus was put to death by the Roman Governor of the Province of Judea somewhere between 27–33 AD. Some scholars narrow it even further to between 30–33 AD. The Governor’s name was Pontius Pilate; he was Governor of Judea from 26–37 AD. We know that Pontius Pilate used the form of punishment reserved for slaves and the worst form of criminals: crucifixion. We know that Jesus was not a Roman citizen, precisely because he was put to death by crucifixion; crucifixion of Roman citizens almost never occurred. We know that after his death, rather than scatter and hide forever, Jesus’ followers spread the message of Christianity across the Middle East, into western Asia in the country now known as Turkey (or Türkiye) and then into Europe. There is some evidence that the message spread east as far as India, but that is less certain. 

We also know that the followers of the Way, as Christianity was first called, taught something absolutely radical for the time: that everyone was equal. St Paul was one of the key teachers. He travelled throughout western Asia and into Europe. We are in the extraordinary position of having copies of most of his letters (or copies of copies), which he wrote to the various early churches, some of which he founded himself. He was a key influencer in the early Church. 

Here is the radical message, put very simply in the letter to the Colossians. The writer puts it this way: “This wonderful and glorious mystery: that Christ lives in you” (Colossians 1: 27).  

If Christ lives in each one of us, if the mysterious presence of the divine is in each one of us, without distinction, then we are all equal. 

Because we are so used to the notion of everyone being equal, because we are so used to the notion of loving our neighbours as ourselves, because we have grown up in a society which has this as one of our founding principles, we forget just how radical it was in the ancient world. The rest of the ancient world simply did not believe this! If you were a commander in the Roman army and you heard the phrase, “Love one another as I have loved you” you would have thought, “Why on earth would I do that? My slave is not my equal. That conquered barbarian is not my equal.” We forget just how radical this idea was. 

This radical notion changed the history of thought. There are moments in history, threshold moments, when a new idea emerges and once it is out there, once it has gained traction as a valid idea, there is no going back. The idea that human beings, including slaves, were equal is one such idea. It changed the history of thought. It was a radical shift. What’s even more radical is that a wandering Jewish teacher, on the very fringes of the Empire, taught this and lived this, and that after his death his followers took up the mantle and spread that same message.  

I’ve been reading a book by Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, in which he makes the case, convincingly, that western thought is so influenced by the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, so shaped by them, that it is inextricably linked to Christian principles. Bear in mind that Tom Holland was brought up as an Anglican, but he doesn’t personally believe in God, so he is writing quite dispassionately. The reason you can go to court and expect to be given the same rights as the next person, is precisely because of the message, “Christ lives in you.”  

So profound was this message that almost 1800 years after Jesus, even as some French philosophers rejected Christianity itself at the start of the French Revolution and proclaimed, “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” (liberty, equality, fraternity) they were using thoroughly Christian ideas. The underlying principles were Christian. The same is true of the American Revolution: the American Declaration of Independence is built entirely on Christian ideas, although the writers were less shy about declaring a belief in a Creator in that document. 

I don’t always do this, but some weeks, when it’s my turn to speak in Chapel or to write a newsletter, I run my basic idea past Mrs McCall. Her response was, “What about the crusades?” What she meant of course was, “If Christianity has so shaped the history of western thought to love your neighbour, why did the Europeans go off to conquer the Holy Land and capture Jerusalem from the Saracens?”  

My response (after I got grumpy and went away and thought about it) was, “Because every movement, no matter how wonderful it can be, has to guard against fundamentalism.”  

Fundamentalist movements come in many shades: the extreme Islamists who blew up the nightclubs in Bali; the atheist Joseph Stalin who killed (or sent off to the salt mines of Siberia) between 12–20 million Christians and Jews; the Communist Pol Pot, who slaughtered millions of academics and educated people in Cambodia; Adolf Hitler, who twisted Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution to suit his own racist agenda. 

There is an antidote to fundamentalist: the key antidote is the central message of Christianity, (the key idea that changed the history of thought) that we are all equal under God. This belief has to be the underlying driver in any course of action, otherwise, there is the danger of slipping into fundamentalism. The truth is that Christ lives in you; we are all equal under God; we are all, equally, deserving of justice and love. 

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain