Sunday, 10 August 2014

Empire and Anarchy

When the apostle Paul was writing letters to the Christians in Rome, telling them to obey the lawful authority, where this did not conflict with religious practices, it is clear that what was in his mind was that order was better than chaos.
The Roman Empire could be brutal in its imposition of the Pax Romana, but equally, it acted to keep that same peace, under which many differing peoples with all kinds of beliefs could get along a live side by side with each other. Indeed, many of our own laws derive from Roman law. Even the Emperor was not wholly above the law.
And while this was a society in which slavery existed, Over time, however, slaves gained increased legal protection, including the right to file complaints against their masters. The Stoics and Christians both opposed the ill-treatment of slaves, although members of both movements spoke out against the institution itself.
But Rome could be very brutal against what was perceived to be a threat. When the Jews revolted in AD 70, Jerusalem was taken, and the Romans ran out of wood for the countless crucifixions. This was an orderly society, but the imposition of order could be extremely strong.
The alternative that Paul could see if rulers were not there was a society of anarchy, in which the bullies, the most powerful, ruled, and where the safeguards of law were lost or flouted. While Rome's rule was not good, the collapse of that, and the power vacuum left could be worse.
We see something akin to this in the recent history of the Middle East. Dictators have been toppled, but in their wake, minorities have been left at the mercy of those seizing power, like the religious warlords of the Islamic State.
Forced conversions, brutal executions by beheadings, women taken as "war booty" - this is what is filling the power vacuum. The dictators had to clamp down on sectarian violence, and paradoxically, this meant that all religious groups had more freedom (although not to criticise the regime), and some from minorities could rise into positions of power in government.
The factionalism left by the removal of the dictators left a void into which religious nepotism was rife. Democracy, as one person, one vote, is an ideal which assumes those elected represent a diverse society, and those in power have sufficient checks and balances to accommodate the minorities. Religious and cultural nepotism means that the majority tends not to look after the interests of that minority, breeding disaffection, and a soil ripe for planting the seeds of fanaticism.
But the fanatics can be extremely dangerous. The Mongol hordes swept across the Middle East, and reached the gates of Vienna before an accident of history saved Europe. The Islamic State are like the Mongols - a savage, brutal peoples, who found Islam congenial to their philosophy of conquest, but who thought nothing of taking the Caliph from Baghdad, and putting him in a sack, and having horses trample him to death.
Some action must be taken to protect the innocent, the women and children, caught up in the carnage today from these modern day hordes of the Islamic State.

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