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October 21, 2016

8:13 AM

To Live and Die for Jesus: Social and Political Consequences of Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

Typically, religion involves a significant social dimension. Beliefs, rituals,
ethical/moral scruples — these all characteristically find expression
socially, whether in participation in the religious acts of a given group,
or through interpersonal relations shaped by religious convictions and
teachings. Moreover, religion often is part of what comprises and identifies
a given social group, such as a people, a nation, or a tribe. We typically are members of such "traditional" social groups by birth, and the religion of
such groups is typically "inherited" along with the rest of what it means to
be part of them.


Even "voluntaristic" religion — that is, religion that people subscribe
to by personal choice (through conversion, for example) — characteristically involves a social dimension. To make this or that religious affirmation typically involves associating with others who share one's particular religious stance. The social entity with which the convert associates might be small, such as a localized circle of fellow adherents, or it might be larger, perhaps a religious movement, a sect, or a denomination. The geographical extent of such a larger social entity may be local or trans-local, perhaps even international. In some cases, the social composition of a voluntaristic religious group, whether local or broader in scope, may cross lines of ethnicity, gender, age, economic level, and social status. But, whether a person's religion is an inherited tradition or a voluntary choice, there is a social dimension, and there are social and even political consequences involved that are to be reckoned with in understanding any particular religious affirmation. To join in expressing the religious stance of a given group affirms and reinforces it, and each participant also receives, whether implicitly or explicitly, affirmation as part of the group and the benefits of participation in the group.


On the other hand, to dissent or to withhold participation in the religious
stance of a given group can have more negative consequences. In the
case of a traditional religion, it can mean that a dissenter, or merely someone who does not openly show observance of the religion, can be regarded by the group as behaving suspiciously, and perhaps can be seen as subversive,a threat to the solidarity and cohesion of the group, or at least a bit of a troublemaker. In the case of a voluntaristic religious group, those who are not adherents are typically considered in some way outsiders, whether they be regarded more kindly as lost souls who might come to see the validity of the group's religious stance, or are viewed more negatively as infidels,unbelievers, enemies of the truth, perhaps even a spiritually inferior form of humans.


If the religious stance or practice from which one is seen to dissent has an official status or is somehow especially linked with the political structures of the setting, then (whether by intention or not) religious dissent can also be taken as having political implications and can have political as well as social consequences. As I will use the terms in this discussion, "political" consequences involve specifically the actions and attitudes of government officials/representatives (whether local or wider), and "social" consequences have to do with the effects of a religious behavior upon relations with family, neighbors, friends, associates, and the rest of those who make up one's social world.
In the following blogss, I wish to focus on the social and political consequences of devotion to Jesus for earliest Christians, particularly negative consequences, the social and political costs of being a Christian in the early years of the movement that came to be called "Christianity." As we shall see, the social and political costs involved make it remarkable that the young faith proved as attractive as it obviously was for some, and also may help us understand better the limits of its attraction for others.

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