The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
The above is a picture of a Christian veteran in Lexington
One of the truisms of history is that those who refuse to
learn from the past, learn from the lessons of history, are doomed to repeat that
itself, it is not cyclical, but
nonetheless there is much to learn from the past if we are to avoid its
mistakes. In 1776, a year that we
celebrate with great regularity in this country. Eduard Gibbon first released his classic work The Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire. In this
work Gibbon chronicles the factors that led to the decline of that mighty
Empire, and its eventual demise. To
say that historians have closely scrutinized this work is to say too
little. In fact modern historians have
been obsessed with it, precisely because of the possibility of drawing
analogies with other world Empires (e.g
the Ottoman Empire), and studying historical causation. In 1984, one German professor enumerated
some 210 theories as to why Rome fell! None of them, I’ll warrant, includes the
theory that Paul and John of Patmos had both predicted the Fall of Rome in
their respective writings. In other
words, none of them entertain the theory of divine decline. But the Bible is perfectly clear that
ultimately God causes the rise and fall of human empires and kingdoms, something Jesus himself believed when he said to Pilate ‘you would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above’. That however does not settle the question of
secondary causes in any way. God can use
a myriad of means, his wonders to perform.
There is thus plenty of room for the secular historian to theorize about
proximate or human causes.
first thing to be said about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is that
it was gradual, it was a slow sliding into decay which took some 320
years. It certainly didn’t happen
abruptly, unlike for example the fall of the Third Reich, only a few years
after it reached its peak size. Most
Roman historians believe that September 4th 476 A.D. is the date we
can pinpoint as the end of that Empire–when the last western Roman
Emperor, ironically named Romulus Augustus
(i.e. after the founder of Rome and then the first founder of the Roman Empire),
was deposed by the Germanic ruler Odacer.
The peak of the Empire and its widest spread had come in the middle of
the second century A.D. What is ironic about this is that that is precisely when Christianity was undergoing its most rapid growth period.
Empire collapsed not with a bang, but a whimper, and of course it changed
Christian history as well (see the story of the Byzantine period and the move
to Constantinople etc.). Scholars will
debate whether the eastern Roman Empire continued beyond about 480 or not, and whether
we should see the Byzantine Empire as that continuation. In my estimation we should not. The fall of Constantinople in A.D. 1453,
some a thousand years later was the fall of an Empire which was neither Holy
nor Roman, frankly.
of course Constantine who favored and engineered the moving of the center of
gravity of the Empire from Rome to the city named after him, which today is of
course called Istanbul. And in part he
did this in response to Christian forces and influences. Christianity had something to do with the
decline of the Roman Empire in the sense that it undermined and overwhelmed
ancient paganism as a religious force.
But the warning signs of religious decline
were already there in the time of Augustus.
For example, Paul’s near contemporary Plutarch once complained ‘Now a
days, no one believes the gods are really gods. Olympus is over-crowded’. In short, there was a spiritual decay noted
by Plutarch, and indeed noted by Augustus who made stern new laws about strict observance
of the rituals of the traditional gods in an effort to turn back the clock to
the ‘good ole days’.
If there is one thing one can say clearly
about matters spiritual so far as they effect larger cultural life, you can’t
turn back the clock. The spiritual ethos and development of a culture doesn’t
work like daylight savings time! Note
to churches and denominations vigorously praying that next year will be 1954
all over again. It ain’t going to happen!
Revival and renewal movements do
happen, but they do not lead to a going back, but rather a new spiritual thrust
forward. And when Christians have tried to impose some of their values on a non-revived truculent
culture (think the era of Prohibition in
the twentieth century in America), it has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Revival and renewal must come from within,
and people must want to embrace the new or old values they are offered. In matters religious and spiritual, people
can’t be legislated into conversion to this that or the other. They will simply ignore the law or move
sideways in other directions.
Are there things that America could
learn from the story of the Roman Empire as it declines as a world economic and
military power in the 21rst century?
[Note to those who are in denial that this is happening— over 40% of
all U.S. debt is now owned by China and other foreign countries. If they call in their markers, the real power
behind the throne will become all too apparent]. Yes, I believe there are.
the problem that Plutarch lamented was ‘too much religious pluralism’. He was especially concerned about all these
new deities from the east (the god of the Jews, the god of the Christians, the gods Isis and Serapis). When a country turns its back on its religious
roots, in our case-Judaeo-Christian
roots, in favor of other ‘eastern’ religions or even rampant atheism it is a
clear sign of a spiritual malaise and decline.
Paganism, it needs to be remembered, was not atheism. It was simply polytheism. It was the Christians who were accused of
being atheists, that is ‘a-theos’ without the gods, in antiquity because of
their monotheism. In my view, the signs
of spiritual decline are everywhere in our country.
With spiritual decline in the Roman
Empire came also moral decline, because theology and ethics have always been,
and indeed should be intertwined.
Morality without an ultimate sanction or divine foundation or a Word
from God is simply the shifting sands of situation ethics. Again Augustus recognized this. This is why he did his best to re-institute traditional
Roman marriage, and encouraged women in particular to resume the traditional
values of hearth and home. It is an odd
thing, but some of the speeches one
hears now in conservative Christian circles about marriage and family and
bearing children and traditional family values and virtues could just as easily
have been given by Augustus himself, with minimal tweaking of the names of the
Furthermore, in Roman times the culture became more and more coarse, there was increasing lust for blood sports, for gladiators etc. And even political discourse became coarser and coarser. The parallels with what has happened in America which now spends more on entertainment (whilst listening to more and more political shock jocks) than even on national defense should be clear.
A third thing in common with the
decline of the Roman Empire is of course greed. In America today 40% or more of the country’s
wealth is owned or controlled by less than 10% (the upper 10%) of the populous. In Rome this problem became worse and worse
over time, so that in the end about 2% of the populous was hording over 90% of
It is not a populous move
or movement to argue for tax breaks for those who are already rich. This was realized in Roman times, and it
ought to be realized in our own times as well.
Tea Party, are you listening?
The failure of Americans to even know their own history is frankly
astonishing. When I was an infant Eisenhower
was President. Here are some things you
should consider about his reign, courtesy of Manny Goldstein. Note to readers, Eisenhower was not a flaming liberal
“The highest tax bracket on earned
income today is 35%. During Ike’s administration, the highest tax bracket was
92% in 1953, and 91% thereafter. Yes, taxes on the Rich were almost three
times higher under the Republican Eisenhower compared to our current President,
or compared to the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton! It is considered to be almost the gospel
today that capital gains should be taxed at a far lower rate than earned
income. Today the maximum capital gains tax rate is a whopping 15% on assets
that have been held for at least a year since purchase. This is why the middle
class, who are dependent on earned income, effectively pay taxes at a higher
rate than do the wealthy. In Ike’s day,
capital gains were not treated differently from earned income, so the rich paid
91% tax on capital gains. From 91% to 15% – another reason why it’s good to be
“Note that in 1955, in the middle
of Ike’s presidency, the typical (median) family paid less than 20% in all
taxes. By 2003, the total of all taxes paid by a typical family had more
than doubled, to almost 40% of income. So
in Ike’s day, the rich paid a lot of taxes, the middle-class paid a little
taxes, and somehow it all worked out. But
Did Ike Want To Tax The Rich?
“You might be curious as to whether
Ike actually wanted such a high tax rate on the Rich, or was somehow forced
into it by, say, a Democratically-controlled Congress. It turns out that when
Ike ascended to the Presidency, both houses of Congress were indeed controlled
by a single party – the Republican party. Republicans controlled the
Presidency, the House, and the Senate – they could have done anything they
wanted. And some in Congress did pressure Ike to roll back taxes on the rich,
but Eisenhower held the line, saying:
“We cannot afford to reduce
taxes, reduce income, until we have in sight a program of expenditure that
shows that the factors of income and outgo will be balanced.”
Party would do well to think about the various dictums of Eisenhower about such
matters, and here is why. Though they
have some right to be angry, most of the
things they are advocating such as lower taxes and less central government are
in fact counter-productive to their ultimate aims! Less central government will not make us a
safer country, a more prosperous country, and less taxes on the rich will not
get us there either, unless you truly believe in trickle down economics. It is notable that Donald Trump recently
said that it was high time to impose a huge tariff on incoming goods from China
etc. and use this means to balance the budget. Free trade is not necessarily fair trade
when it comes to American jobs etc. I
have watched with dismay the decline of my beloved furniture industry in the
middle of North Carolina. Hardly any
furniture today is made there.
Why? America’s lust for cheap goods
even if they come from Timbuktu has
ruined most of our manufacturing industry.
In other words, as Pogo said a long
time ago— ‘I have seen the enemy, the enemy is me’. We Americans should all look in the mirror
and we will see the main source of our own decline— our own lust for cheap
goods and desire to live larger than we can afford, indeed to live the high
life while working like we were low life.
The rise of the gaming industry is just another indication of the rot from
within— the desire to get rich without any amount of commensurate work
producing that wealth. I have very
little sympathy with the news report today that Las Vegas is in deep trouble
economically. This is what should happen
when your economy is based on preying on people’s worst and most selfish and
And finally there is the lesson to
be learned from the Roman wars. Rome
wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t decline in a day, but what did happen is
that its military vitality and strengthen was sapped and zapped by being nickeled
and dimed to death by small unwinnable wars— oh think, the Korean conflict,
and then the Vietnam war, and then the Gulf conflict, and then the Iraq war and
now Afghanistan. Rome ended up fighting on too many fronts at once and invested too much of its vital resources fighting minor skirmishes against pirates and guerrillas in desert and mountainous terrain? Does this sound familiar?
Note to all—– the
money spent on our American wars combined from 1950 until now, all
of which were unnecessary, all of which were undeclared wars, none of which
meet the criteria of just war theory,
could have: 1) eliminated all poverty in the Northern hemisphere for the
foreseeable future; 2) made the lowest
income bracket in the U.S. middle class; 3)
prevented all sorts of major diseases; 4) cleaned up our environment and
found solutions to global warming etc.
and I could go on. WE HAVE
WASTED OUR VITAL RESOURCES IN THE LAST 60 YEARS ON USELESS, POINTLESS, AND
UNWINABLE NON WORLD-WAR CONFLICTS, and this frankly is exactly how Rome went
down for the count. Read the history of
the period A.D. 150-450.
Note about terrorism—
the goal of terrorists is to strike fear in the heart of their enemy so they
will colossally over-react and waste their men and money chasing phantoms
abroad while at home the nation goes to pot, the infrastructure crumbles, and
we experience the winter of our discontent.
If you look at the money we spend today on the TSA alone, you will see
that the goal of the terrorists has been achieved. We are now making one fear based decision
after another since 9-11-01.
I could go on drawing spiritual,
moral, economic and military parallels between the Roman Empire’s decline and our
own, but this must suffice. I would however like to end with a note of
hope from the Scriptures for Jews and Christians—– “if my people, who are called by my name, will
humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,
then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their
land.” This is not a promise made to
America in general. 2 Chronicles 7.14 is spoken to God’s people. I hope they will listen, because we are
indeed a major cause of our own country’s demise (think the health and wealth Gospel for
example). Enough said.