I love history, I can’t seem to get enough. I’m enthralled with the rise and fall of tribes, languages, civilizations, systems of belief. Erin’s dad bought me a $50 gift card to Borders for Christmas and I’ve used it all on history books. During my stay at my parents over the Christmas holiday, I read one of the books I bought, “Days that Changed the World: The 50 defining events of world history” by Hywel Williams. It’s a fascinating book and he’s a great writer. Just for the heck of it, I’m going to list the 50 events he’s singled out. Williams is British and although he’s included some Far Eastern history, he’s looking at history through the perspective of a Westerner.
1) 28 September 480 BC (Brits write their dates backward): The Battle of Salamis
2) 15 March 44 BC: The Assassination of Julius Caesar
3) Good Friday c.30 AD: The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
4) 11 May 330: The Dedication of Constantinople
5) 31 December 406: A Confederacy of German Tribes Crosses the Rhine
6) 7 December 632: The Death of Muhammad7) 11 October 732: The Battle of Tours
8) 25 December 800: The Coronation of Charlemagne
9) 27 November 1095: Pope Urban II Preaches the First Crusade
10) 25 August 1227: The Death of Genghis Khan11) 29 May 1453: The Fall of Constantinople
12) 12 October 1492: Columbus Makes Landfall in the Bahamas
13) 20 September 1519: Magellan Sets Sail for South America
14) 18 April 1521: Luther Defies Charles V at the Diet of Worms
15) 29 July 1588: The Defeat of the Spanish Armada
16) 21 October 1600: Tokugawa Ieyasu Wins the Battle of Sekigahar
17) 24 May 1607: The Foundation of Jamestown, Virginia
18) 24 May 1618: The Defenestration of Prague
19) 5 June 1661: Isaac Newton Matriculates at Cambridge University
20) 12 September 1683: The Ottomans Abandon the Siege of Vienna
21) 11 April 1713: The Peace of Utrecht
22) 26 August 1768: The Endeavor Leaves Plymouth
23) 4 July 1776: The US Declaration of Independence
24) 14 July 1789: The Fall of the Bastille
25) 18 June 1815: The Battle of Waterloo
26) 17 December 1819: Simon Bolivar Named President of Gran Columbia
27) 15 September 1830: Opening of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway
28) 23 August 1833: Parliament Passes the Emancipation Act
29) 8 July 1853: Commodore Perry Anchors in Tokyo Bay
30) 9 April 1865: Robert E. Lee Surrenders at Appomattox
31) 1 September 1870: The Battle of Sedan32) 7 March 1876: Alexander Graham Bell Develops the Telephone
33) 20 June 1900: The Boxer Rebellion
34) 30 June 1905: E=MC2: The Special Theory of Relativity
35) 28 June 1914: The Assignation of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo
36) 1 July 1916: The First Day on the Somme
37) 7 November 1917: The Storming of the Winter Palace
38) 22 June 1941: Operation Barbarossa
39) 7 December 1941: The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor
40) 6 August 1945: The Bombing of Hiroshima
41) 25 March 1957: The Treaties of Rome
42) 28 October 1962: Krushchev Agrees to Remove Missiles from Cuba
43) 28 August 1963: ‘I Have a Dream’
44) 21 July 1969: ‘The Eagle has Landed’
45) 29 March 1973: The Last US Troops Leave Vietnam
46) 16 October 1973: OPEC Raises the Price of Oil
47) 3 February 1976: The Rise to Power of William Henry Gates III
48) 9 November 1989: The Breaching of the Berlin Wall
49) 11 February 1990: Nelson Mandela is Released from Prison
50) 11 September 2001: The Collapse of the World Trade Towers
What blows me away about this list is that only 6 historical events (19, 27, 32, 41, 43, 44 and 47) are not in some way associated with violence. Even the explorers quickly slaughtered those they “discovered,” Luther’s Protestant Reformation lead to centuries of religious wars and Einstein’s genius gave him a platform to first speak out against war and then to push for the development of the atomic bomb.
It seems that history always changes with one group of people violently defeating another group of people. The last of the Greek empire gives way to the Turks when Constantinople falls to the Ottomans. The Ottomans give way to the Austrians when they fail to take Vienna. World history has been determined by those who best wield their swords.
But there is one exception: the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus Christ was the only one who conquered by willingly laying down his life. Of course, Good Friday did not seem like a victory to Jesus’ followers at the time, but the Resurrection three days later was Jesus’ moment of victory. The Resurrection demonstrated that neither the military power of Rome nor the political power of the Religious Right (the Jewish religious leaders) were any match for the Resurrection. Jesus willingly laying down his life and then God bringing him back to life sparked a movement that transformed the world. Christians took salvation to the far reaches of the Roman Empire and even beyond. Three hundred years of Christ-followers committed to nonviolence and self-giving love. Untold numbers of Christians were killed for their faith but the movement kept spreading. For as Tertullian (155-230) proclaimed, “In the blood of the martyrs lies the seed of the Church.”
But the Kingdom of Jesus was transplanted by the ideal of Christendom with the unfortunate (by my perspective) event of Constantine’s victory at the battle of Milvian bridge in 312. Constantine was one of several leaders vying for the Emperor’s seat. A few days before the battle, Constantine had a vision of a cross and heard a voice declaring, “by this sign you will conquer.” Constantine had the sign of the cross affixed to his soldier’s shields and his armies won the battle. Constantine eventually rose to become Emperor and declared Christianity to be the official and established religion of the Roman Empire. With this Edict of Milan, Christianity went from being the persecuted to the powerful. Nothing could’ve been worse for the Kingdom of Christ. Williams describes it this way, “After 330, surrounded by glory, Christianity in Europe entered into the mainstream and therefore lost what it had once had – the dissenting edge of an underground movement.” This linking of Christianity to political and military power is what prompted this entry into the journal of an unknown French Revolutionary in July of 1791, “When the last king is hanged with the bowels of the last priest, the human race can hope for happiness.”
There are a lot of people who convert to Christ but never really grasp or live out everything that Jesus taught. For some it’s because they’ve been away from Christ for so long that their time of following Christ isn’t long enough to facilitate a complete re-orientation of their lives to Jesus’ teaching. There are others who settle for having their “sins forgiven” but never get much deeper than that. I’m not sure what category Constantine fit into but while his conversion seemed to be legit, he missed the point of a lot of Jesus’ teachings. He did try, though. He passed laws to make Rome more “Christian.” He forbid work on Sunday, he established Saints Days and other Christian holiday (read my post on the “Christmas Wars”) and even fought for pure Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicea. But Constantine never grasped Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and self-sacrifice. Williams described Constantine as a “sincere, if bloody, Christian.” Constantine used the sword to extend Rome’s territory as well as silencing those who differed with ‘official’ Christian doctrine, particularly Arianism.
With Constantine’s conversion, Christians picked up the sword in 313 AD and many of them have yet to put it down. Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in 1521 lead to two centuries of religious wars between Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans. Modern American Christians were wielding the sword through efforts to “take America back for God” through political power or in the unconditional support of American Militarism.
But as Gregory Boyd teaches in his book “The Myth of a Christian Nation” the Kingdom of Jesus is not about picking up the sword but in picking up the cross. In fact, Boyd goes so far as to say the sword and the cross cannot co-exist. We either choose to live by the values of the kingdom of Jesus or the kingdoms of the world. The world “wins” by exercising power over, Christians “win” by exercising power under. A way we’re living this out in our church is through our Love Wins ministry. Rather than joining a recent movement to outlaw these clubs, as some pastors were recruiting me to join, we’ve instead discovered ways to serve the girls working in the sex industry.
A great example from history is in the life of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce spent decades fighting to convince Parliament to end England’s slave trade. But as always happens, political leaders chose what was financially viable over what was humanitarian. On Christmas night, we watched Wilberforce’s story in the movie, “Amazing Grace.” At one point in the movie, one of Wilberforce’s closest friends and strongest political advocates tries to convince Wilberforce to lead a military revolution. This friend’s rationale was that military violence is a small price to pay for a new world rid of economic oppression and slavery. If only Wilberforce would drink “the wine of revolution” they could start a new order. “The Americans pulled the cork out of the bottle, now the French share the wine… It’s a natural wave that’s flowing Wilber. First Boston, then Paris. Next, London.”
But unlike so many other leaders who honestly believe they’re fighting for freedom Wilberforce rejects the seduction of violence. He refused to use the evil of war to fight the evil of slavery. The ends, according to Wilberforce, do not justify the means.
Wilberforce’s (movie) response to his allies urging was “you must never speak of revolution in my presence again.”
Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807 and emancipated the slaves in 1833. In the scene after the bill to abolish the slave trade has passed, John Fox gives this speech. “When people think of great men, they think of men like Napoleon. Men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and power. A man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. Yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow, and remember the slave trade is no more.” Ironically, this morning I read this quote from Napoleon, “My power proceeds from my reputation and my reputation from the victories I have won… Conquest has made me what I am; only conquest can maintain me.”
Another great example of a non-violent revolution is the Civil Rights Movement. According to the author, “A visit to India in 1959 confirmed [King’s] view that Mahatma Gandhi’s path of non-violence had been an effective way of ‘meeting physical force with soul force.’” This commitment to non-violence lead King to denounce the “black power” movement and to encourage his followers to react with peace even when beaten. In fact, it was the attack of the police dogs on Bloody Sunday in which Kings’ followers refused to fight back when unjustly beaten, that won over the country’s opinion to King’s side.
As Christians, our power comes not from our political or military might but in our knowledge that death is not the end of our story. Our power comes in our commitment to self-sacrifice and we’re able to lay down our lives for others because we worship the God of the Resurrection.
And as one final side note. Rome never completely gave up her worship of pagan gods. But since most Christian ‘conversions’ were done for political advancement rather than for love of Jesus, why would people forsake what they’d always known? Even when Constantine’s new “Christian” city of Constantinople was dedicated, a statue of the Greek goddess Tyche with the Christian cross attached to her forehead was paraded throughout the city. In “the more things change the more the stay the same” category, that reminded me of a popular picture of the Christian cross draped with the American flag. We’ve replaced the combination of Greek mythology and Christian theology with American militarism and consumerism with Christian teaching. Could we be so in love with Jesus that we willingly leave behind the false ‘gods’ of our American culture? Can we follow the teaching (Sermon on the Mount) of the One who was slaughtered but now reigns (Revelation 5) and who conquers his enemies not by shedding their blood but in the shedding of his own blood (Revelation 19:11-16).