The Fragility of Democracy in Antiquity: The Example of Athens

Though he had once fought for Athens and then spent his working life in the dogged pursuit of moral truth, Socrates now stood before the Assembly, charged with the twin crimes of atheism and corrupting the youth. He insisted that he had always Philosophersacknowledged the gods, and he challenged his accusers to present, as a witness, a single victimized young person. Though none came forth, Socrates was nevertheless condemned to die. Later, awaiting execution, he brushed aside attempts to engineer an escape, saying it would be disloyal to the state. Finally, after considering his own prospects for an afterlife, he drank the poisoned hemlock and died in the presence of his weeping disciples. This sequence of events,[i] occurring in 399 B.C., was one of the great injustices of history—and was carried out in a democracy.

Not surprisingly, Socrates’ devoted pupil Plato was not democracy’s greatest advocate. Plato was also painfully aware of another “democratic atrocity,” the vindictive extermination, in 416 B.C., of all the adult male citizens of the little town of Melos and the enslavement of all its women and children.[ii] So when, in 360 B.C., he penned his great work The Republic, he warned that, in a democracy, “[T]he minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable.” Finally, “in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws, written or unwritten.” The result: “[F]rom an extreme of liberty one is likely to get, in the individual and in society, a reaction [extending] to an extreme of subjection [namely, tyranny].”[iii] He believed that an egalitarian, democratic culture, based on the idea that all individuals and opinions are of equal worth, could undermine the pursuit of excellence and respect for authority and also encourage envious aggression toward people of ability and wealth. The resulting amalgam of social disorder, fear, and incompetent government created the conditions from which dictatorships emerged.

In the 5th century B.C., all free, Athenian, male citizens were full and equal participants in government at every level: They initiated, discussed, and passed legislation in the Assembly; they were equally liable to do jury service and military service; since all appointments to public office were by lot, even the poorest citizens could wield executive power; and a “quorum of 6,000 citizens could vote to exile anyone for five or ten years simply by writing his name on pottery shards[iv] . . . cast as ballots.”[v] Whilst this system of direct participatory democracy helped to educate Athenians in the arts of government and worked relatively well under wise and inspiring leaders like Pericles, it swiftly degenerated after his death in 429 B.C. Sound society gave way to leadership by demagogues, to class war, to attacks on the property rights of unpopular minorities, and to the persecution of dissident individuals. At the same time, Athenians denied to their allies and dependents the liberty and self-government which they themselves enjoyed. Eventually, Athens, wracked by conspiracies and revolts, fell to her undemocratic rival, Sparta.

The failure of democracy in the land of its birth teaches us an important lesson: Since human nature is fallen, democracy is no guarantor of lasting good government; it is only as good as the values commonly held by the majority of its citizens. It is not enough that they know the laws of their state; they must also show regard for their neighbors, according to the laws of God. When they do, democracies can flourish; when they do not, even the most thoughtfully-framed government will disintegrate.

Sadly, 5th century Athenians, with their many false gods, were only dimly aware of God’s truths and ways. And today, as Western societies turn away from Christianity, so too do their democracies suffer strain, threatening to degenerate into personal licentiousness and government tyranny. Furthermore, as the West seeks to extend democracy around the world, it should remember that where the people are disoriented or ignoble, “rule by the people” is problematic, requiring the safeguard of rights and great patience as cultures seek to rise to their new opportunities and responsibilities. In the last analysis, democracy is not the issue; instead, the moral wisdom of the people is the great essential for a healthy society.

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[i] Captured in Plato’s dialogues, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

[ii] This was for refusing to abandon its neutrality in the long and disastrous Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) between Athens and Sparta. For a contemporary account, see: Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, ed. and trans. Richard Livingstone (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 266-274.

[iii] Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 384.

[iv] Ostraka, from which comes “ostracism.”

[v] Patrick Watson & Benjamin Barber, The Struggle for Democracy (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988), 17.

The Bible and Sports

olympicsWhen you tune in to the Olympics, do you realize that the Bible has shaped what you’re watching? It’s a little known fact that in the 19th century, Christian principles, informed by Scripture, helped shift the West’s attention from cruel sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting to mass spectator sports like rugby, soccer, cricket, and tennis. A result of this development is the popularity of the modern Olympic Games. As one British historian put it, the rise of spectator sports together with the widespread establishment of new public parks and sports grounds “contributed to the emancipation of the body and mind of millions.”

The evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries created a new social and sporting ethic based on the idea that vigorous outdoor recreation was not only vital to the mental and physical health of Britain’s growing urban population, but that it also provided an opportunity for improving moral and social attitudes by developing an ethos of “team spirit” and “sportsmanship.” Sports, it was argued, could be used as a vehicle for inculcating self-discipline, combating personal selfishness, and transcending class divisions. Influenced by these ideas, Christians were actively involved in the development of sports both as patrons and players.

By the 1800s, a new attitude about sports emerged as part of a worldview that came to be known as “muscular Christianity”—popularized by British Christian writers Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) and Thomas Hughes (1822-1896). Hughes wrote in his novel Tom Brown at Oxford that “a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth.” Clearly this was an attitude drawn from the Bible, for Hughes echoes  1 Corinthians 9:27 (“But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway”) and Genesis 1:28 (where God told man to “subdue” the earth). Additionally, protecting the weak and advancing righteousness are themes scattered across the Old the New Testaments.

Buttressed by a biblical understanding of recreation, sports like soccer, cricket, rugby, and golf took off in the UK. Following Britain’s example, muscular Christianity spread to other countries, appearing in the US, for instance, first in the private schools and then in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where it led to the invention of basketball and volleyball.

Modern sports may not have attained their honorable and prominent status in society if not for a group of British Christians who took their Bibles in hand as they thought about athletic competition. Yet sad to say, few who watch or participate in sports around the world today realize how much they owe to Scripture’s influence.

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Note: A version of this article was originally published in Kairos Journal and posted on the BibleMesh blog in August 2012.

Transgenderism in the Ancient World

As Clement looked around his cosmopolitan city, the open displays of transgenderism broke his heart. Grown men wore bleach-blonde feminine hairstyles, donned see-through women’s clothing, smelled of perfume, and had their bodies shaved in public salons where passersby could observe the spectacle. Though males biologically, these men “detest[ed] the bloom of manliness,” as Clement put it.[1]

world_missionsClement might well have lived in 21st-century London, Amsterdam, New York, or Los Angeles. But he didn’t. Clement was a theologian along the Egyptian coast during the second century AD, and his experience was not atypical. Though the term “transgenderism” was not coined until the 1960s,[2] the phenomenon has existed for millennia—individuals who feel drawn to present themselves as the opposite gender. At times such behavior in the ancient world was coupled with homosexual acts, and at other times it was practiced by those who would be described as bisexual today.[3] Yet from ancient Mesopotamia to the Greek and Roman Empires, instances of gender confusion are well documented.

During Old Testament times, the Mesopotamian text Erra and Ishum described men “who changed their masculinity into femininity” as part of worshiping the fertility goddess Ishtar.[4] In the intertestamental period, the Greek playwright Aristophanes dubbed one character in his play Women at Thesmophoria a “man-woman”—presumably reflective of people he had encountered in real life—and noted, “What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? What relation has a mirror to a sword? And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man?”

By the first century AD, the Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Egypt, could point to “men-women” who “altered the impression of their natural manly appearance into the resemblance of a woman” and were “willingly driven into the appearance and treatment of licentious women.”[5] The first- and second-century Roman satirist Juvenal spoke of “the effeminate,” who “in their homes put long fillets [hair ribbons] round their brows” and “swathe themselves with necklaces.” Some used “damp soot” as eye makeup and tied up “long locks” in hairnets.[6] Priests of the Roman cult of Cybele were initiated through a ceremony involving self-castration.[7]

The second-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus remarked to one young man, “Are you a man or a woman? A man. Then adorn yourself as a man, not as a woman.” He added that a “man to be seen who would rather be a woman” is “a scandalous show.”[8] Clement of Alexandria’s prescription for such behavior was representative of many Christian, Jewish, and pagan writers of his time: It “must be driven as far as possible from our society.”[9]

In light of these ancient sources, contemporary followers of Jesus should not be fooled by claims that transgenderism marks the advancement of society or the culmination of movements to celebrate diversity. Of course, some might turn this around and argue that being ancient makes the practice normative. Yet such an argument falls short logically and biblically, for murder and slavery were also ancient practices, and few would claim they are morally legitimate. Far from demonstrating the moral virtue of transgenderism, its ancient roots underscore the reality that with sin, there is truly nothing new under the sun. Since Old Testament times, some men and women have responded sinfully to a psychological struggle related to their gender. Just as in Clement of Alexandra’s day, Christians today should grieve over the spiritual and emotional brokenness of these people and compassionately invite them to repent and experience the renewing grace of Christ.

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Endnotes

[1] Clement of Alexandria, Paedegogos 3.3.16, 21. Quoted in S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 290-91.

[2] See John F. Oliven, Sexual Hygiene and Pathology (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965), 514.

[3] Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 291.

[4] Erra and Ishum IV. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 234.

[5] Philo, Special Laws 1.325. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 286.

[6] Juvenal, Satire II, lines 82-99. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 288.

[7] Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 288.

[8] Epictetus, Discourses 3.1. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 290.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, Paedegogos 3.3.19. Quoted in Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 291.

The Church’s Response to Islam

IslamChristianityWith resurgent Islam extending its power throughout the world—whether through immigration, procreation, litigation, intimidation, or terrorism—the Church must respond for the sake of truth, righteousness, and, indeed, civilization. Of course, truth and righteousness are already in short supply in the West. Decadence is proceeding apace, and unless there is spiritual awakening in the land, Islam will reign by default. The only hope is a rebirth of holiness, a rediscovery of spiritual boldness, and a renewal of spiritual power. Of course, in all this, the Church must lead:

First, repentance must once again characterize the people of God. This will not be easy since, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed, “Proud men and successful civilizations find it difficult to know God, because they are particularly tempted to make themselves God.”1

Second, the Church must invest herself in the good work of making disciples as well as converts. For one thing, the Church must once again catechize believers in the faith.

Third, individual heroes of the faith must step forward, for God still searches for a man. A man, that is, who will “stand in the gap” (Ezek. 22:30 NIV).

Fourth, the people of God must once again walk in the power of the resurrection of Jesus and embrace the sacrificial way of the cross. Such was the selfless witness of the early Church.

Fifth, Christians must come together as a body to meet the challenge. Not dwelling on the issues that divide them, believers must remember Jesus’ prayer that they “may be one” (John 17:22).

Sixth, godly confidence must displace fear and doubt. The Bible promises that Christ’s kingdom will prevail, and the Lord repeatedly counsels His followers, “Fear not!”

Thus prepared, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church can begin to meet the challenge of Islam effectively. Here are some possibilities which a local congregation might use:

  1. Courses of study on the scripture, history, and current manifestations of Islam.
  2. Intentional outreach and direct evangelism so that Muslim neighbors may learn of Christ.
  3. A network of similarly motivated pastors and churches for mutual support and counsel.
  4. Use of various communication resources. Using the Church’s wealth of talents, contacts, spiritual gifts, and platforms.
  5. Earnest prayer. The Church’s most potent weapon.

The power of a holy, obedient, prophetic, and praying Church is incalculable. Nothing could match the splendor and fruitfulness of a repentant and revived body of believers. In reality, the spiritual vacuum now tormenting the West will be filled by something—if not with the glory of the living God, then with oppressive secularism or Islamic legalism. Yes, to meet these adversaries, it will take sacrifice, not only of resources, but also of comfort and safety. But sacrifice is the watchword of a people who meet, with all hopefulness, at the foot of the cross.2

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Endnotes

1 Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Christian Church in a Secular Age,” in Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), 212.

2 “Resurgent Islam and the Challenge to the Church,” Kairos Journal KJOP-01, 2006, 14.

Biblical Insight: What’s a Dad to Do?

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?

Hebrews 12:7 (ESV)

When the film Rebel without a Cause came out in 1955, it touched a nerve. Warner Brothers advertised it as a “challenging drama of today’s juvenile violence.” It featured three rising young actors—James Dean (as Jim), Natalie Wood (as Judy), and Sal Mineo (as Plato)—each portraying troubled teens responding to their fathers’ insufficiencies. Jim’s father was spineless, Judy’s, cruelly strict, while Plato’s father was absent. World War II reminded America of the importance of a father’s presence, but Americans spent the next decade—with dramas like Rebel without a Cause and comedies like Ozzie and Harriet—asking the question, “What’s a dad to do?” We still suffer as a culture for lack of understanding the role of a faithful father.

Father copyHebrews 12 was not written as a prescription for earthly fathers, as much as its wisdom might apply to them. Rather, it was an exhortation to suffering Christians to cling to their heavenly Father. The author of the epistle pointed out that the trials, hardships, and difficulties Christians experience should sometimes be understood as an expression of God’s discipline—discipline that is ultimately for the believer’s spiritual welfare.

Sadly, when English speakers hear the word “discipline,” punishment most often comes to mind. But the Greek word can mean, more broadly, “guidance for proper living.” Biblically speaking, then, discipline is often as much about tender formation as it is about firm correction. When believers suffer for bearing the name of Christ, they need not conclude God has abandoned them or that He is punishing them for some wrong done—far from it! Trials only affirm that God is forging fidelity in the recesses of their hearts. Or, as the author of Hebrews put it, even though “for the moment” all discipline seems painful, it eventually “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (v. 11). In other words, the fruits of discipline form faithful Christians!

Like any loving father, God uses the means of both formative and corrective discipline to help Christians more fully reflect the character of Jesus. Sanctification, the process whereby God brings his children to spiritual maturity, is a sometimes painful experience. Mature Christians come to recognize that the trials and difficulties they experience are not evidence of God’s arbitrariness, anger, or absenteeism. Instead, they understand that every trial is a manifestation of His love. Those He loves, He disciplines (v. 6).

What’s a dad to do? Dads dare to discipline. As a faithful Father, the Lord disciplines His children through many and various trials, tests, and corrections. The reality of the Christian life is that discipline is a part of discipleship. Helping individuals and congregations understand the shaping role of discipline is a crucial component of Christian leadership. Perceptive counseling can assist Christians to see the events in their lives as palpable evidences of the Father’s love and turn whining into gratitude and fickleness into faithfulness. In the process, those who understand the discipline of the Lord might even one day become better parents themselves!