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Where is Ambrose When You Need Him?

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Those who demand that people with religious views should keep their beliefs personal and private are inconsistent in the way they apply the principle. I’ve noted on various occasions how the anti-slavery and civil rights movements grew out of Christian political involvement. The self-righteous left praised ministers and congregations who led the way to overturn unjust segregation laws. But now that conservative Christians have entered the realm of politics, a realm they ignored for decades, these same pro-religious civil rights activists are promoted a form of religious quietism: You can believe and teach anything you want in your churches, but these religious beliefs have no place in the public square. I wonder what life in Medieval Europe would have been like if Ambrose of Milan had followed this leftist dictum?

In the year 390 A.D., a mob in Thessalonica murdered an officer of the garrison stationed there to keep the peace. When Theodosius the Great heard of it, he reacted like most tyrants do—with rage. Roman troops gathered up about nearly 7000 residents in the circus and slaughtered them. In earlier days before the advent of Christianity, people would have shuddered and moved on with their lives.

Bishop Ambrose of Milan had petitioned Theodosius against reprisal, but to no avail. In his letter of condemnation, Ambrose made his personal faith public and political:

“There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious which I so often petitioned against it.”[1]

Following the example of Nathan’s confrontation of David after his adultery with Bathsheba and his conspiracy to murder Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11), Ambrose called on Theodosius to repent or be denied the Eucharist, which would have ostensibly consigned his soul to hell.

Ambrose, who had no army or political connections, risked his life to confront a person in a political office who committed a criminal act. Of course, at first Theodosius didn’t see it this way. Rulers in those days believed that they had a “divine right” to rule. Whatever the king said or did was the law. There were no moral attachments to his edicts; they were the law, however. We have a similar situation today: Whatever Congress and the Supreme Court say is law is law. Of course, being a law does not make it morally right, a point that Ambrose made crystal clear to Theodosius at great risk to himself:

“It was an act of magnificent valor, but even more memorable for the principle it enshrined: No ruler was above God’s law, and no churchman might trample on that law in the service of his sovereign. The church’s moral authority flowed from God, not the state.”[2]

A modern-day ruler and most political pundits would protest to keep religion out of politics and then continue to advocate for legislation that allows for the killing of preborn babies, the sanctioning of homosexual marriage, and continued oppression through taxation which creates a dependent (slave) citizenry. What was the response of Theodosius?: He “consented to public penance at the cathedral in Milan. Ambrose had risked everything to assert ecclesiastical preeminence in moral judgment. In so doing, he provided an example that would echo through the centuries.”[3]

The quietists don’t want to hear this echo. They would rather believe that religion—the right religion—is the problem rather than the solution.

Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 10.
[2] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 10–11.
[3] Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, 11.

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