A thought struck me as I was reading about what life was like in the time of the Apostle Paul. Historians know quite a bit about the world of Ancient Rome and the empire she presided over. It was a very dark and dangerous time to be alive. The world at the time of Paul was a place of fear, death, superstition and avarice. Cities were congested and unsanitary. Divorce was epidemic, adultery and prostitution were commonplace. Getting any kind of wound, fever or infection could cost you your life. The gods were fickle and vengeful, when they were paying any attention at all. In the end, people were pretty fatalistic about life, and spent much of their time just trying to satiate the desires of their flesh just so they could know they had lived.
The thought that struck me was this – compared to that world, ours really isn’t so bad. We don’t live under that kind of fear or hopelessness. I found that thought kind of ironic, given that I am an Evangelical Christian. Isn’t the world supposed to be getting worse and worse the closer we get to the end? Isn’t the prevalence of evil in the world supposed to be an indication of just how close we are to the Great Tribulation?
If I’m honest, we’re much better off in the world today, than in Paul’s day. Conditions are much improved in almost every area of life! And while evil still exists, it lurks in the shadows here, while there it was in your face. So that got me thinking. What made the difference?
Christians did. For example – did you know that it was a Christian monk named Telemachus who brought an end to the Gladiator games in Rome? According to the story, on January 1st, 404 AD, while visiting the city of Rome, an ascetic monk from Egypt was appalled by the cruelty of the games and the insatiable lust for blood it fostered in the spectators. He ran out onto the stadium floor and physically tried to separate the gladiators, crying out “Forebear!” as he did so. He was stabbed and killed in his efforts. The death of this saint shocked the Romans so much that the emperor put an end to the games there and then.
Christians made the difference in the Roman world. Mark Gelinas describes it this way in his book, Discipled by Jesus:
The early Christians stepped into a world in which women were owned, children were cheap labour, poverty was the lot of the majority, slavery was assumed, people with disabilities were discarded, religion was incarcerating and government was oppressive. By the time Jesus’ first disciples had spilled their blood on the streets of Rome they had turned their world upside down. They reintroduced love and covenant to marriage, providing a safe haven for women and children. There were no needy people among them because those who had much ensured that no one had too little. Though the institution of slavery remained, it became obsolete as slave and owner worshipped the one true Master together. Those with disabilities were recognized as full-fledged bearers of God’s image, counted worthy to suffer like Jesus. Believers permeated government, even Caesar’s own household, and new names were written daily in the book of life.
And over the past 2,000 years Christians have continued to make a huge difference in their world. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve made some serious blunders as well – pogroms, crusades, colonization, slave trade, residential schools all come to mind, and we need to own our disasters as much as our successes. But there have been successes! Public education, social assistance, hospitals and public health, and an end to the North American slave trade. Individually and collectively, the world has become a better place because of the efforts of the Christians who have come before us.
So I wonder, could we do it again? Can we, as Christ followers, really make a difference for the better in the world we live in? Not because we are great or noble, but because the Holy Spirit is at work in us, blowing through this world with the holy, restorative power of God. What evil do we need to get in front of? What darkness do we need to stand in the middle of as the Light of the world? Instead of waiting for the end to come, should we be more focused on making this world a better place in whatever way we can?
There’s still time for us. Our Christian ancestors were gospel people. They lived a life of love, just like Jesus, and gave themselves up for others. I don’t see why we can’t do the same.