With the Irish – even with the kings – [Patrick] succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased. In reforming Irish sexual mores, he was rather less successful, though he established indigenous monasteries and convents, whose inmates by their way of life reminded the Irish that the virtues of lifelong faithfulness, courage, and generosity were actually attainable by ordinary human beings and that the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society.
Patrick’s relations with his British brothers were less than happy. Rising petty kings along the western coasts of Britain, rushing to fill the power vacuum left by the departure of the Roman legions, began to carve out new territories for themselves and to take up piracy, an activity the Christian Britons had long ago abandoned.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 110
One important piece usually missing from contemporary discussions about slavery – ancient Christians abolished slavery in the Roman empire and even in territories beyond. Thus the modern abolition movement was the second time Western Christianity had ended slavery in its domains.
Instead of a revitalization of Mesopotamian and Iranian Christianity, the devastation of the fanatical Muslim Tamerlane (ruled 1370-1405) greatly intensified the destruction wrought by Ghazan and Oljaitu. After the loss of their churches and monasteries, the surviving Nestorians sought refuge in the remote mountains of Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) and Hakkari (in south-eastern Turkey), for only in the shadows of rugged mountains can a persecuted spirit live on in freedom. And so the one-time ‘Christian sea’ of Mesopotamia and Iran was transformed into a small, inaccessible island, surrounded by the wide ocean of Islam.
Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 6
If you are looking for ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, always look to the mountains. Groups survive there that tend to disappear down on the plains. They are a sort of time capsule, preserving ways of life that most have assumed are long gone.
I’ve written previously about the tendency of conspiracy theories to take too high a view of human potential. Many conspiracy theories depend on multi-generational secret global coordination that’s just not possible with for humans to pull off. The biblical worldview paints the successes of sin and power as temporary and illusory. Sooner or later everything falls apart as the inevitable destructiveness and selfishness of sin brings even the best diabolical schemes toppling down.
But there is another kind of conspiracy theory, one which takes too low a view of human nature. In this kind of apocalyptic theory, everything collapses. “Get some land in the mountains, stockpile food, and get a gun” is one earnest encouragement I received from another Christian some years ago. “The global food supply is right about to collapse. For your family’s sake, you need to be ready.” The brother who encouraged me to do this was no nut-job living in some kind of bunker. He was the manager of the coffeeshop where my wife worked and himself preparing to be on an international church planting team. Needless to say, his dire predictions a decade ago were wrong.
In that conversation I remember pushing back on several fronts. First, church history informs us that Christians largely stayed and served when calamity befell cities, often giving their lives to serve plague victims and thereby earning an incredible reputation for their faith. They did not run to the hills en masse with their families and weapons in tow (though fleeing can of course sometimes be a faithful option). Second, my friend’s dire warnings did not seem to take into account the incredible creativity, ingenuity, and adaptability that humans have for survival, profit, and system-creation.
I have lived in some extreme places and have visited others. Many of my coworkers have lived in even more extreme places than I have. One of the surprises of visiting these kind of areas? Life keeps on humming. People manage to eat, to have homes and jobs, to have systems of transportation and communication, and to have collective governance and defense. I’m not saying that life in places like failed states, conflict zones, or poverty-stricken areas is easy. But I am saying that humans are remarkably resilient and creative. If one structure collapses, five others rise up to fill the void almost overnight. And someone has figured out how to monetize it. Just look at the ways the world is currently innovating. We are living in a global pandemic, after all.
I live in an area of Central Asia that has experienced an incredible amount of conflict over the last couple hundred years. All of my local friends have incredible trauma in their background. Yet some of our local systems are more efficient and affordable than what we can get in the US. Here’s a brief list:
Fresh bread daily from local neighborhood bakeries, ten small steaming-hot loaves for a dollar
Simple, pay-as-you-go mobile phone systems. Buy a card at a neighborhood shop with credit on it, load it on your phone, no complicated contracts or fine print.
Neighborhood fruit and veggie trucks. These trucks are loaded up with fresh produce and make the rounds through every neighborhood, selling fresh and affordable fruits and veggies and announcing their arrival via loudspeakers.
Taxis and buses. Get anywhere in the city via taxi for $3 or take a bus on established routes for $0.20.
Pharmacy delivery. Stuck at home under a Covid-19 quarantine? No problem, local pharmacies will take your order via Facebook messenger and send a delivery man (for free) to your house with your needed meds.
Womens Saving Clubs. Having a hard time actually saving money for that new appliance? Join a group of 12 local women where everyone contributes $100 a month and when it’s your turn once a year you get “paid” your saved $1200.
You see, though we live in a place that raises eyebrows among outsiders and frightens off volunteers, locals manage to have some pretty efficient and creative systems for technically living in a war zone. I just learned this week that we have a new local service which will deliver flowers, novels, or locally-tailored men’s formal wear to your front door. Not bad, Central Asia, not bad at all.
To those who are given to the global-system-collapse conspiracies, I would encourage them to take a deeper view of history and a wider view of the current world. Yes, big collapses have happened. The transition from the Bronze Age economy to the Iron Age was devastating as everyone’s stockpiled bronze suddenly lost its value. Later, in the middle ages, global cooling caused crop failures on a massive scale, leading to widespread famine. The Great Depression one hundred years ago was real. It’s not the existence of crises like this I take issue with, but with the implied extent. The assumption is that a post-apocalyptic world will result, when history just doesn’t bear that out. Humans are too resourceful for that.
I believe this creativity and resourcefulness is rooted in our creation in the image of God and in the creation mandate.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them.
And God said to them,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it,
and have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)
Humanity’s incredible ingenuity and ability to bounce back and build societies comes from being created in the image of God. We can’t help but create, even when we don’t mean to. It’s in our very DNA. As we were commissioned to do in the beginning, we bring order in small ways to the rest of creation. Yes, all of this has been affected by the fall and our attempts at re-creation and bringing order are marred, transient, and imperfect. They are infected now with greed and a thousand other sins. And yet the image of God must have been so powerful in its unblemished form that it continues to shine forth even in the darkest parts of the globe and following the biggest calamities.
Why don’t I give much time of day to the global collapse conspiracy theories? It’s not because I have so much faith in humanity. I believe in total depravity. Rather, it’s because I have such faith in the remnant image of God within humanity. Even with our brokenness, we are an awfully creative bunch.
His love for his adopted people shines through his writings, and it is not just a generalized “Christian” benevolence, but a love for individuals as they are. He tells us of a “blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful (pulcherrima) – a true adult – whom I baptized.” Who could imagine such a frank admiration of a woman from the pen of Augustine? Who could imagine such particularity of observation from most of those listed in the calendar of saints?
He worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual, but also for their physical welfare. The horror of slavery never lost on him: “But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most – and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.” Patrick has become an Irishman, a man who can give far more credibility to a woman’s strength and fortitude than could any classically educated man.
In his last years, he could probably look out over an Ireland transformed by his teaching. According to tradition, at least, he established bishops throughout northern, central, and eastern Ireland.
The shield protected the bearer from both hand-carried and missile weapons. In the Pauline analogy, the shield is used to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (v. 16). Horse archers constituted the main combat units in the Parthian Empire – Rome’s primary eastern foe in this period. The Parthians’ fearsome reputation, having defeated the Roman legions in numerous battles, made Paul’s analogy of the flaming darts, or arrows, of Satan appropriate.
ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1756
Though Christians and Westerners are generally aware of the northern barbarian threat to the Roman Empire, most learn almost nothing about Rome’s bitter rival empire to the East, the Parthians. WordPress, the platform I’m using, provides me a useful illustration here as it doesn’t even have Parthian in its dictionary and keeps flagging it as a misspelling. It’s as if we are conscious of the peoples east of the Euphrates up until the book of Malachi. Then, all of the sudden, the light of historical consciousness turns off and the focus shifts to the West.
Yet here was an empire not only able to go toe-to-toe with Rome, but even able to defeat many Roman armies throughout the centuries. The Parthians had risen to power following the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. At first glance they seem to be an interesting blend of Greco-Persian cosmopolitanism and the horse culture of the great steppes. They were certainly much more tolerant of early Christianity than the Romans were – an important point not to be dismissed. The great persecutions of Christians under Zoroastrian rulers would not come about until the Parthian empire gave way to the Sassanians and Rome had been Christianized.
Though we may be ignorant of them, inhabitants of the Roman empire would have been very aware of this other superpower. I found it interesting that this street knowledge of the political enemy may provide background for the familiar Armor of God passage in Ephesians chapter 6, particularly the part about “flaming darts” (6:14). As the passage quoted above states, the Parthian horse archers were the main fighting force of the Parthians. Apparently they were so skilled that they were able to ride their horses without stirrups and fire their arrows accurately at the enemy legions – even turning their torsos to shoot backwards while their horses sped in the opposite direction. This particular tactic came to be known as the “Parthian Shot.” This may have come down into modern English as “parting shot” since authors like Arthur Conan Doyle used “Parthian Shot” in their writing to describe a last comment or jab given during an exit.
Returning to Paul and Ephesians 6, the image the original readers may have had in mind was that of a Roman soldier’s shield deflecting the flaming arrows of Parthian horse archers – archers who were shooting at them while simultaneously riding with terrifying skill. Sounds like quite the dangerous situation, especially for a foot soldier. As such it was an effective analogy, not just communicating the danger posed by Satan’s attacks, but also the tremendous power provided by this shield of faith.
Finally, [the Mongol ruler] Il-Khan Ghazan (ruled 1295-1304), who converted from Buddhism to Islam, offered the Western European rulers Pope Boniface VIII, King Edward I of England and James II of Aragon his conversion to Christianity in the case of a military alliance against the arch-enemy Egypt.
But the age of the Crusades had passed and Acre, the last Christian bastion of Palestine, had fallen in 1291. In 1287 the kings Philip the Fair of France and Edward I of England had given the cold shoulder to Rabban Bar Sauma, the Nestorian special envoy of Il-Khan Arghun. Even though the mission brought no results, it testifies to the international character of the Church of the East at that time that the Ongut Rabban Bar Sauma, who had lived in a monastic cell south of today’s Beijing, came to Baghdad and later traveled to Italy and France, becoming a kind of Asian Marco Polo in reverse.
In light of the lack of European interest in an anti-Islamic alliance, Ghazan remained a Muslim. Thus a window of opportunity for a possible re-Christianization of the region that is today Iran and Iraq closed forever.
Can Islam be true Islam without a Caliphate? That is the question that has been simmering within the Islamic mind for one hundred years. The final Ottoman caliph was deposed during secular reforms after World War I. Ever since then there has been no caliphate, Islam’s equivalent of theocratic empire.
For a parallel Christians might be more familiar with, consider the similar question that Judaism faced after the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem temples. How can the faith live on when so much of it assumed the existence of a particular structure? With that structure gone, can the faith reinvent itself and reinterpret commands that seem impossible without that sacred structure?
After the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, Judaism was able to eventually return from exile and rebuild. Yet it changed nonetheless, developing the synagogue system and coming to a deeper understanding of the kingdom of God as a universal one. God’s throne is revealed in the exile prophets as being a wheeled chariot. It is not limited to one locale. These changes laid the groundwork for much of Jesus’ and the apostles teaching about the true nature of the kingdom of God in this age.
But the Jews were unable to rebuild the second temple after its destruction in AD 70. This destruction at the hands of the Romans forced massive changes in Judaism leading to the disappearance of the Sadducees and the survival of Judaism through the Pharisees at the Jamnia school. Blood sacrifices were reinterpreted so that good works were now counted as equivalent. Rabbinic Judaism developed in new directions. Judaism survived, but even to this day Jews and Christians who study the Torah can feel the tensions introduced by the fact that the temple system is no more.
For traditional Islam, the caliphate is a divinely-ordained structure, a cornerstone of the world as it should be. The Islamic community is supposed to be led by a political and spiritual leader like Muhammad, Abu Bakr, or Uthman. Even though the history of the caliphate is a very mixed bag, its abolition is viewed by some as one of the greatest tragedies to ever happen to the Islamic community, a fall/curse motif of sorts. While the vast majority of Muslims have embarked on a process of making Islam compatible with the modern world system – nation-states, dictatorships, democracy, human rights, etc. – a minority of Muslims seeks to reestablish the caliphate system. This minority interprets Islam’s primary sources such that spiritual Islam goes hand-in-hand with a political system. They believe you can’t have true Islam without a caliph and a caliphate. They point out, rightly, that this is assumed by the original sources. The Qur’an and Hadith do not advocate for a City of Man vs. City of God intertwined worldview, but rather for the here and now to become the City of God, by the sword if necessary. The borders are supposed to be physical and clear. There is the house and Islam where the caliph rules, then there is the house of war. That’s it.
This minority seeks to implement what ISIS called the “prophetic methodology.” This means moving away from the majority view that advocates for a personal faith in Islam, expressed in the community of the mosque and in nation-states which have blended Western law codes with Shari’a. The minority views this kind of blending as an adulteration of true Islam. How do groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS get their philosophical attraction? They appeal to this tension within the Islamic mind. Can Islam be true Islam without a caliphate? Can jihad really be redefined to only mean spiritual war with oneself and good deeds toward others? Can Shari’a really be faithfully blended with law codes developed by those (like the English and the French) whose traditional religion ascribes partners to Allah?
You can see how the divisions come about. It’s as if a group of disgruntled Jamnia rabbinic students begin to meet secretly, disagreeing with their teachers’ positions that blood sacrifices can all of the sudden be reinterpreted as good works, now that the gentiles have destroyed the temple. That’s not what the text says! they might say, shaking their heads. From there it’s not very long until an armed group is formed and ready to attempt an attack against the Romans. They will spill their blood in hopes that the temple can be rebuilt. They believe faithfulness depends on it.
It’s important to note very clearly that the vast majority of Muslims are compatibilists, that is, they live and believe in the blending of Islam with the modern world. These Muslims are not working for a restoration of the caliphate. And yet we should not be surprised when secret or militant groups form around the ideology of restoring the caliphate. It is a tension not yet resolved within the mind of Islam, despite what a liberal mullah in a Western city might tell you. The tension is real and it’s presence makes sense given the sources and history.
Our contemporary age is witnessing this identity crisis within Islam play out, especially from the 1970’s to the present. Most of our Muslim friends will be far too practical to go down this road, but those ISIS propaganda videos still may strike a chord in their hearts. Practically, we need to support the moderates. A rigid return to the “prophetic ideology” is bad news for all, as the world saw in Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. If Islamic interpretation can cement the compatabilist view as the dominant one, that is overall good for the world. Though I don’t myself know if its foundation is solid enough to be victorious. It’s main problem is a serious one – a straightforward reading of the primary sources.
But as Christians we should also learn to speak the gospel into this tension, calling our Muslim friends to a better kingdom, one which exists parallel to the kingdoms of this world and does not call for a theocratic empire run by a fallen mortal. Here instead is a spiritual kingdom that adopts its rebels, gives them new hearts and new names, and outlasts all of the temporary and flawed kingdoms of this world. All the while it seeds these transient systems with communities of eternal life and eternal truth – cities within cities as others have described it. Some Muslims longing for a caliphate will find themselves drawn by the Spirit to a surprising answer.
The Empire of God is coming in all its fullness, therefore, now is not the time for jihad. Now is the time for giving ourselves sacrificially to our enemies. It is the age of mercy and free pardon for all who will repent and align with the embassies of this coming kingdom. Our Muslim friends are right to long for a better ruler and they are right that Jesus is returning, yet they need to know that he is returning not as a mere prophet and warner, but as the true and divine king. The answer to the deep longings for a perfect leader ruling a perfect government will not be found in a new caliph. It can only be found in Jesus Christ.
To Roman citizens, the place to be was a Roman city or villa. The pagus, the uncultivated countryside, inevitably suggested discomfort and hardship. The inhabitants of the pagus – pagani, or pagans – were country bumpkins, rustic, unreliable, threatening. Roman Christians assumed this prejudice without examining it. Augustine, in his profundity, realized that the ahistorical Platonic ascent to Wisdom through knowledge and leisured contemplation was unaccomplishable and that it must be replaced by the biblical journey through time – through the life of each man and through the life of the race. Still, the words iter (journey) and peregrinatio (pilgrimage) made him shudder. As bishop of Hippo, he almost never visited the country districts over which he held nominal sway, and once when he did he was nearly ambushed by Circumcellions, radical Donatists who were a sort of Chrsitian combination of Act Up and the Party of God. His travels to Rome and Milan as a young man were never repeated, nor would he in a million years have thought of venturing beyond the Ecumene, outside the Imperium, lay chaos unimaginable: “Here do be monsters,” the medieval maps would say of unmapped territory.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 107-108
And so there developed along the Euphrates a fourfold border: political, dogmatic, ecclesiastical and linguistic.
Since the Church of the East was denied access to the West, it consequently oriented itself towards the East. While Bishop David of Basra initiated contact with the Indian Thomas Christians of Kerala around 295/300, Nestorian monastic missionaries advanced into the Arabian Peninsula, as well as towards the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. After the loss of its Arab dioceses to Islam and a first setback in China, the Church made renewed efforts towards the east beginning in the eleventh century, and reached the Mongol peoples and the Middle Kingdom.
At that time, the authority of the patriarch of the Church of the East extended from the Euphrates to the Yellow Sea…
Hardened physically and psychologically by unsharable experiences, hopelessly behind his peers in education, he cannot settle down. One night in his parents’ house, a man he knew in Ireland visits him in vision: Victoricus, holding “countless letters,” one of which he hands to Patricius, who reads its heading – VOX HIBERIONACUM, The Voice of the Irish. At that moment, he hears the voice of a multitude (beside a forest that Patricius remembers as being “near the western sea”), crying: “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.” “Stabbed in the heart, ” he is unable to read further – and so he wakes up.
Try though he might, he cannot put the Irish out of his mind. The visions increase, and Christ begins to speak within him: “He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.” Patricius, the escaped slave, is about to be drafted once more – as Saint Patrick, apostle to the Irish nation.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 105-106