Hate Speech, Cultural Sycophancy, and Subversive Beliefs

The association of “hate speech” with American Christianity occasionally appears in the US media and in the speeches of politicians and cultural commentators.  What this “hate speech” of Christians consists of is sometimes, but not always, clear; but, ironically, tirades against Christian “hate speech” sometimes engender hatefulness and “hate speech” against Christians and innocent employees, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xdyzb6lBzI.
Painting of the Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
Rewind to 399 BC, and we see one of the great cultural icons of the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods being accused of ancient hate speech.  The teachings of Socrates were threatening deeply rooted theology of classical Athenian culture.  In addition to theological “heresy,” Socrates was also charged with the corruption of the youth by his teachings.  In contrast to his detractors with their many accusations against him, notice Socrates’s paradigm of the therapeutic value of what others considered hate speech, given during his trial [Plato Apology 29-31].
And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadflywhich God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus [the legal prosecutor of Socrates] advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly. And that I am given to you by God is proved by this: – that if I had been like other men, I should not have neglected all my own concerns, or patiently seen the neglect of them during all these years, and have been doing yours, coming to you individually, like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue.
Now, fast forward to the 1st century AD, and one discovers that accusations of hatred and hate speech were being forcefully made against early Christian groups.  One of the earliest official pogroms against followers of Christ came from Nero during the burning of Rome.  There was anger and fear among the population, and Nero needed to blame the act of arson on someone.  The Christians were such a despised group that it was initially easy for Nero to hunt them down and punish them with horrific tortures and unspeakable pain.  This gruesome episode in history is narrated by the Latin language, Roman historian Tacitus.  He writes [Tacitus Annals 15.44.4],
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [i.e., of being Christian]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind (odium humani generis). Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
In most cases the early church was not willing to be a sycophant for the surrounding cultures and their values, and the same was true for many Christians in Rome.  Apparently the only way the pagans could process this lack of cultural sycophancy by the followers of Christ was to accuse them of “hatred against humanity.”  To be sure, the Christians taught that the gods of Rome [and other forms of idolatry] were false, that the brutality of Rome was unacceptable, that sexual immorality was offensive, that exposure of infants to the elements was murder, and that their own loyalty to God was higher than their patriotism.  Civil obedience (Rom. 13) and good conduct (1 Pet. 3:16) were commanded to the followers of Christ, but only as far as their devotion to God would allow.  Although their beliefs were challenged by non-Christians, the demeanor of a Christian was to be one of gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:16).   Even when the rhetoric against paganism is turned to its highest volume in the New Testament, as in the book of Revelation, all language about Christian “hatred” is hatred turned toward the pagan-like behavior of some Christians in the church (Rev. 2:6, “Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans [=Christians who have assimilated to pagan beliefs and practices], which I also hate”).  There is not a single word either commanding or commending followers of Christ to have hatred for their pagan neighbors. 
For centuries Graeco-Roman philosophy had suggested paradigms of the “gadfly,” the“father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue,” or thephysician whose treatment is painful, but therapeutic [an illustration used by other philosophers].  None of these paradigms, however, satisfied the angry crowds in Rome, and typically the general pagan populace would not enter into the open arena to have dialogue on these beliefs and behaviors that the Christians deplored. Those early believers knew very well that their critique of pagan beliefs and behaviors did not arise from a hatred of the non-Christian population, but often the pagans were just not able to see that very important distinction.  


2 thoughts on “Hate Speech, Cultural Sycophancy, and Subversive Beliefs

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