Thursday, January 24, 2013

Two Cultures of Death: Similarities between Rome and America


History repeats itself because human nature has remained constant throughout world history. As such, nations rise and fall for similar reasons. The fall of the Roman Empire has a lot to say about the decline of America.

As for ancient Rome, before its mighty empire fell, Christianity was persecuted and repressed for years. By the time the Christian religion was legalized and thus was permitted to have any meaningful influence on its public institutions, it was too late. Its downward spiral was beyond the point of no return. What is more, because the Romans had become religiously indifferent and confused, human life ceased to be held as sacred and inviolable. By the first century, not a few Roman emperors had a wonton disregard for human rights. In fact, they did not hesitate to kill anyone who became the least bit disagreeable to them.

History shows us that the life of a nation can be summed up, and even illustrated, in the life of its citizens. The fate of the Roman Empire, for instance, was told through the lives of two of its highest ranking members in the first century: Seneca and Petronius. These men were not only confidants of the notorious Emperor Nero, but they were products of their own culture.

It just so happen that Roman society in their day had sanctioned the taking of innocent life for the purposes of entertainment and convenience. To varying degrees, Seneca and Petronius bought into the culture of death. Yet, the same reckless abandon they had for human life would claim their own lives.

To be sure, the lives of Seneca and Petronius are highly symbolic, not only for an empire that was destined to fall, but for America whose destiny has yet to be determined. Indeed, their lives tell a story…a story about the mortality of nations.

First century Rome:

Enter Seneca and Petronius: The year was 60 A.D. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, decided to go to the show; not a play in the theatre but a show of a real life and death drama. He didn’t know what he was getting into. He had heard about the gladiator shows at the Coliseum, but he wanted to see for himself what the hype was all about. Thinking that he was going to be entertained and distracted from the burdens of everyday life, he instead witnessed something he would never forget. He discovered that his beloved Rome— the home of the most “civilized” empire yet to date —gave no thought to human dignity during its state-sponsored entertainment. In his own words:

“I come home more greedy, more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a midday exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation…But it was quite the contrary…These noon fighters are sent out with no armor of any kind; they are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain…In the morning they throw men to the lions; at noon they throw them to the spectators.”

Another prominent figure during that time was Petronius, a contemporary of Seneca, and a fellow advisor of the Emperor Nero, who had a different opinion of these shows. With a feverish anticipation, he wrote to a friend reminding him not to forget about the gladiator show; after all, there was a new shipment of fresh blood. He could barely contain his joy as he writes:

"Don't forget, there's a big gladiator show coming up the day after tomorrow. Not the same old fighters either. They've got a fresh shipment in. There's not a slave in that batch. Just wait. There'll be cold steel for the crowd, no quarter and the amphitheatre will end up looking like a slaughterhouse. There's even a girl who fights from a chariot."

Petronius was a product of his culture. But Seneca was too. Although he was horrified at the sight of gladiators killing each other to entertain the mob, he nevertheless bought into the culture of death. In fact, Seneca endorsed infanticide without the slightest hesitation. He once said, “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.” As for Petronius, he was an unabashed sponsor of human cruelty through and through. He had no scruples about the moral decadence that surrounded him.

These two men failed to realize, as did most at the time, that when even one person’s human dignity is violated or ignored- whether it be a gladiator or an infant -then it is a loss for humanity…a loss for them. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the culture of death caught up with both of these men. Indeed, Seneca and Petronius were forced to commit suicide by their boss, Emperor Nero; an emperor whom they faithfully served.

Twenty-first century America:

Seneca and Petronius are illustrations of how a people can endorse the killing of human life when it suits their purposes. But when the moral evil of taking innocent life is let out of the cage, it inevitably consumes those who let it out of the cage.

Germany learned this painful lesson in 1945 when it was virtually destroyed by Allied Forces at the end of World War II. In the 1930’s, the medical community in Germany endorsed the widespread practice of euthanasia. Soon thereafter, the government ordered the killing and deportation of the Jews. Indeed, the culture of death was alive and well in Germany in the 1930’s and the early part of the 1940’s. Yet, it eventually consumed the German people through the brutality of war. Their country was reduced to ruble.

What happened in pagan Rome and Nazi Germany is happening to America. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal in all fifty states. The pre-born child was no longer considered a person vested with human dignity. But the erosion of human rights accelerated ten to eleven years before when the U.S. Supreme Court expelled God from the most important public institution- our schools (i.e. banning prayer and bible reading). What the American people- including Christians –failed to appreciate is that the suppression of religion is but the prelude to the violation of human rights. The greatest guarantor of human dignity that the world has ever known is a well established belief that every human person is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God. As such, the person is- for all intents and purposes –the property of God with inalienable rights. And when this divine principle is enshrined into law, even the State is bound by it.

But when the moral evils of denying one group of people the right to live- such as the preborn –then God’s rights are denied. Indeed, the State that legalizes abortion, the doctor who performs the abortion and the parent who opts for aborting his or her own child, all play the part of God. And when people play God in deciding who lives and who dies, the act of taking innocent life becomes a Pandora’s Box.

The culture of death, like the brutality of war, will not make the distinction between the guilty and the innocent, between those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life, or between the powerful politicians and the homeless man. Like Seneca and Petronius who supported this culture when it suited their purposes, death will knock on the door of those Americans who will not want to open it. But sadly, they will not have any choice in the matter.

What can be said for the helpless American in cases of abortion and forced euthanasia, can be said for America itself! Her time will come too soon if the culture of death is not overcome.