When Empires Collapse

Readings for the 29th Wednesday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Non ergo regnet peccatum in vestro mortali corpore ut obediatis concupiscentiis ejus. Sed neque exhibeatis membra vestra arma iniquitatis peccato.
Sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. And do not present the parts of your bodies to sin as weapons for wickedness.

JMJ

Walking to work this morning, at about 8:15 AM, I passed a salon with large windows and a long marble countertop. Inside, even at such an hour on a workday, women were already getting their hair done. Two things struck me about the image: I saw no beauticians. Apart from the woman at the front door, there were no staff visible. All the women inside were seated as far apart from each other as possible, looking into their phones while their colors sat. There was no gossip, no friendly chatter. Even the receptionist at the door was watching her screen. So in what was once a traditional center of feminine social culture, there was only isolation and silence. The second thing that struck me was the Party Slogans painted on the wall, all in cheery scripts. One lept out at me and stuck me upside the head (after hearing today’s scripture read at Mass):

Never say no to something that makes you happy.

Contrast and compare to St Paul’s advice that we must not let sin reign over us so that we cave in to every desire our body has. And we’re not to offer up the parts of our body as weapons for evil.

It struck me that we’ve hit the heart of darkness here. Even 10 or 15 years ago the motto would have been “follow your bliss” or “do what you love” or something like that. As much as that’s not right it still put us in control. We had to follow or do. This new motto puts all the things outside of us and we have to only say yes. The world offers us all the goodies and we only have to say yes like some addict giving in to a dealer – even when we want to say or know we should say, “No”. Even when what “makes us happy” isn’t the same thing as “what is good for us”. Even when it means sitting in stonely silence reeking of hair dyes and permanents at 8:15 in the morning… this will make us happy somehow, we guess, until we decide we want to change something else.

What makes the parts of our bodies into “weapons for wickedness”? What makes those same parts into “weapons for righteousness”?

When St Paul was writing to the Church in Rome, that city was the center of a global empire: all the wealth and goods, all the power of the known world flowed into that city. Rome had created a huge funnel that brought everything to the doors not only of the wealthy and powerful, but even to the poor of that city who fared better than their country cousins and were able to look down on them. Being a Roman Citizen was not a citizen of the Empire: it meant a citizen of the City of Rome. In our culture, “I’m a New Yorker” nearly never means one is from Poughkeepsie or even Buffalo. It means “I’m from the City so nice they named it twice.” To be Roman was to be one of the lucky ones.

It also meant that one was surrounded (as in today’s cities) with the opportunities to meet every possible desire and craving. Like San Francisco, in Rome you could meet any food craving, any sexual craving, any sensual desire. Like New York you could meat actors, politicians, the rich and famous, the families of kingmakers that – even under the Caesars – were still making kings. You could find any kind of religious cult, any sort of social gathering, any delicacy to consume until it made you sick.

To this, the entire Christian religion said a profound and unsettling, “No”. Profound because of it’s universal nature: While sex was the most obvious break with the local culture (as it is today), everything from food sacrifices to dinner parties with friends, from political duties to military service fell under religious taboo for these Christians. Unsettling because, as the Psalmist says, “The righteous man makes us uncomfortable for his ways are not like ours.” Even though the Christian was, until recently, a Roman like every other Roman, suddenly she was not letting the parts of her body be weaponized for evil. Suddenly he was offering the parts of his body for good things instead. She was sharing all her wealth with the poor. He was caring for his wife as if she was a human being and not property.

Paul had started a revolution or rather had cooperated with the Holy Spirit instarting a revolution. Hashtag Resist indeed! We need this same revolution today.

We need a class of people who will resist the culture of just accept what makes you feel good. We need a class of people who will only say yes to what saves their souls. We need a class of people who will resist their feelings and instead will strive for their virtues. This class of people will let their “lights so shine before men that they see your good works and praise your Father who is in heaven.”

The ancient Romans imagine that because they tolerated Christians in their midst the Roman Pantheon were angry with them. But we do not need to imagine a vengeful deity, an angry thunder god who will destroy us. Many evangelical Christians have imagined that that was what was happening – ironically following the example of pagans in Rome rather than Christians. In fact all we need is the natural consequences arising from our consumption, greed, and license. All we need to do is stand back and watch our culture collapse. It is the same natural consequences that destroyed Rome. They play out in political, social, cultural, and moral spheres. When the whole structure is weakened as by termites it collapses. The same is happening to us today in our culture that so aptly parallels ancient Rome.

The witness of Christians as different from this culture will not save this culture, however, any more than it is the judgement of God that is destroying it. The culture of cheap plastic junk is present on the left and the right. The culture of I do whatever I envision and don’t bother me is present on the left and on the right. The only difference between Trump saying this and Oprah saying this is which side you voted for in the last election.

In such a culture the Christian choice for chastity, celibacy, prudence, for the life of Virtues will be a condemnation; and, more importantly, will be condemned.

Who’s with me?

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