This Sunday, A Popular Historian’s Book Shows How the Beatitudes Changed the World
With a few words spoken on a Galilean mountain to ordinary people in the ancient world, Jesus Christ set world history on an entirely new path.
Though Tom Holland’s new book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World never mentions the Beatitudes at all, that I can find, his research shows how the whole world has been shaped by the Gospel we hear on the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
Jesus’s words changed the lives of billions of both believers and non-believers.
Historian Tom Holland has written popular histories of both Sparta and Rome. His deep dive into those ancient culture made him realize how distasteful he found the morality of his chosen subjects.
“It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value,” he writes. “Why did I find this disturbing? Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I ceased to be a Christian” — in his worldview.
Holland was discovering how revolutionary it was when Jesus said “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
His book shares evidence the rest of the Beatitudes were world-changing too.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” is a radically different concept from what pagan and other religions hold.
“The heroes of the Iliad, favorites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden,” he writes. “So too, for all the honor that Julian paid them, had philosophers. The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control. Only fellow citizens of good character who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on evil days might conceivably merit assistance.”
The book tells the history of the Church by focusing on prominent figures from St. Paul to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Holland quotes the Second Reading for this Sunday to describe Paul. “In a city famed for its wealth, Paul proclaimed that it was the ‘low and despised in the world, mere nothings’, who ranked first,” Holland writes. “Among a people who had always celebrated the agon, the contest to be the best, he announced that God had chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong.”
Holland finds Paul spelling out what it means to “Hunger and thirst for righteousness” by combining his Jewish erudition with Greek concepts. St. Paul recognized that the natural law was “written on the heart of all who acknowledged Christ as Lord” and “did not hesitate to adapt the teachings of the Greeks,” using the Stoic concept of conscience to explain the Gospel.
Paul’s words meant a new equality for slaves, Holland said. “In a world that took for granted the hierarchy of human chattels and their owners, he insisted that the distinctions between slave and free, now that Christ himself had suffered the death of a slave, were of no more account than those between Greek and Jew.”
Our day has a unique, artistic exemplar of the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Holland points out the deep Christian vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring. After all, the book is not about a quest for power, but a quest to destroy power. In Tolkien’s Christian worldview, “True strength manifested itself not in the exercise of power, but in the willingness to give it up.”
Even the #MeToo movement, Holland points out, has its origins in Christianity’s fight against Greek sexual immorality and is a “summons to a great moral awakening, a call for men everywhere to reflect on their sins, and repent them.”
It is a 21st century insistence that “Blessed are the pure of heart,” a Christian concept that people insist on, to some degree, even after they have given up Christ.
We live in a world so transformed by the beatitudes that people don’t even realize how Christian they are.
It really makes no sense for Christians to feel like we are persecutors or aggressors. But we often do, feeling stung by the criticism of a world which considers us bigots or bullies.
What St. Paul noticed about Christians in Corinth we can notice about Christians in America: “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise.”
We can also notice about our opponents what St. John Chrysostom noticed about his. “The man who is wise according to the standards of this world is really very foolish because he will not cast away his corrupt teaching,” he wrote. “A little learning is a dangerous thing, because it makes those who have it unwilling to learn more. The unlearned are more open to conviction because they are not so foolish as to think they are wise.”
Holland’s book gives one tragic case of how a little bit of learning distorts the picture: the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo. Its artists satirized Jesus Christ and his mother for years without consequence, but when they began satirizing Mohammed, gunmen broke into their headquarters and killed 12. They discovered that the tradition that allowed Charlie Hebdo’s satire to exist, “far from an emancipation from Christianity, was indelibly a product of it,” Holland writes. “To imagine otherwise, to imagine that the values of secularism might indeed be timeless was — ironically enough — the surest evidence of how deeply Christian they were.”
We face the same kinds of people who know a little about the moral order, and think they know everything. They judge Christianity according to the world’s standards, but fail to notice that the very standards they apply come from Christ.
Holland goes so far as to say the “culture wars” are not Christianity vs. secularism, but different understandings of Christian morality facing off with each other.
Never fear. Jesus Christ, the Truth Himself, is strong enough to triumph even over half-truths.
As St. John Chrysostom pointed out, “In human terms it was not possible for fishermen to get the better of philosophers, but that is what happened by the power of God’s grace.”
And that is what will happen again when Catholics embrace the beatitudes.