On Christianity’s upside-down ethics

David Bentley Hart explains why pagans were offended by Christian concern for the poor – including one emperor.



David Bentley Hart explains why pagans were offended by Christian concern for the poor – including one emperor.


Grudgingly, ancient culture, the more it was Christianised, had to struggle either to realise or suppress these Christian moral impulses. Provision for the poor, for the orphan – that was the most immediate and radical change. Even the Emperor Julian, – you know, the last pagan emperor, the one who tried to revive paganism – had been raised a Christian, and so he’s known as Julian the Apostate. And a formidable and a fascinating and a brilliant and an infuriating man. But even he had to acknowledge that – it was a shame to him that, in trying to revive the pagan cults, that the poor of all religions were still dependent on Christian charity, that the pagan culture didn’t have either an organised moral language or the institutional will or the personal will to do what the Christians did.

And so, in the early ages, this is the first great change, is this special concern for those who occupied not just the margins but what lay beyond the margins of society – those who were not important, those who were part of the steam that would have been dissipated in each generation, the leftover.

This also was an offence to the sensibilities of some. I’ve mentioned pagan critics like Celsus or Eunapius of Sardis – they found this incredible. They found this concern for prisoners, for the poor, for slaves, this doting … they suspected it, first of all, as an attempt to swell the ranks of the Christians by inviting any kind of rabble they got in from the roadways, and Julian certainly spoke that way too. But at the end of the day, Julian had to acknowledge – having been raised a Christian, he had the sense that concern for the poor was a spiritual obligation pleasing to God, to the high God, Ho Theos. There was nothing he could do really to rouse traditional pagan culture to share that concern because, simply said, the moral rationality was not there. Stoicism – very admirable philosophical school, but religiously speaking, pagan society had a very strict sense of social hierarchy, spiritual hierarchy and really no interest in this weird practice of elevating even the lowest to positions of ultimate concern for the spiritual life.