At the Council of Nicea, the canonical texts for Western Orthodox Christianity were decided definitively under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine.
Constantine was a warlike man who had no interest whatsoever in Christianity, until he claimed to have a vision of the cross before a battle and claimed he had been victorious after having his warriors paint the “Chi-Ro” of the early church on their shields.
Until then, Christianity had not been a warlike religion. It was not dissimilar to Buddhism or Jewish Mysticism in its ethics, and the Gnostic strains carried that similarity to both ethics and tenets of belief. The early Christians were not armed radicals taking out convoys of Romans by ambush, they were ordinary people who risked everything and faced their persecution mildly.
The thoughtful submission to divine command preferred by Orthodox Christians was soon co-opted by those powerful rulers whose interest was piqued by the legacy of the Biblical warrior kings, David and Solomon. By the time of Charlemagne the lineage of European monarchy back to a fictive kinship with David and Solomon was practically accepted as fact. Constantine certainly saw some advantage in it, as all of his enemies (and he had many) were Greco-Roman pantheists and he knew the Christians wouldn’t hurt him.
The earliest state-sanctioned churches were based on Roman fora, where long halls ended in an apse. And because these were state buildings (beginning the long and tragic history of the chimeric merging of church and state), one of the first human figures to be displayed in a church was not Christ on the cross, but a colossal statue of Constantine himself.
But one of the biggest changes this man who filled churches with colossal statues of himself brought about was the creation of serfdom and rule by a military caste, which would hold the better part of Europe in its thrall for a good 1500 years. To do this, he needed a state religion that would allow it. That was what got Constantine interested in setting down the canon of Orthodox Christianity.
For the most part, what was already there worked for him, but there was one book that even the Council of Nicea had reservations about: the Revelation According to John.
The Revelation of John is a book written after a very ancient apocalyptic tradition, and by most modern scholarship was actually written as a coded message of inspiration that one day, the Roman Empire that made their lives so miserable would be defeated. The scholars at Nicea were sketchy about its provenance and its actual value to the canon but Constantine saw in it something else entirely. He saw in it a wrathful king separating those who had pleased him from those who had opposed him, and condemning his enemies to eternal fire. Constantine saw his own personal narcissistic fantasy in this text, and wanted it to become the focus of his new state-approved Christian theology. From that point on, the Last Judgment has become one of the great fixations of Christianity in the West.
What has that brought us? It has perverted our sense of justice, for one thing. It teaches us that bad things are done by evil people who don’t deserve compassion. It teaches us that destroying our enemies and taking vengeance on those who opposed us is always a righteous cause. It teaches us that all the important decisions in our lives should be made by those above us, and that those who aren’t part of our superiors’ plan have no intrinsic value as human beings. It teaches us that our power structure- in which the few oppress the many through intimidation and deception- is right and good. And even those who don’t buy into that religious view any more still fall into the cultural tropes of believing these things because these things are not the thoughts of a wise or thoughtful being; they are the thoughts of a brutish militarist.
There is another book of Revelation that didn’t make the cut, though. The Revelation of Peter, while a typical apocalyptic folk tale in its character, has a rather different ending to its narrative of the final judgment. At the end, God reveals that those who were condemned would be saved by the prayers of the righteous in heaven. This is very much in the same vein as the Buddhist idea that virtuous masters would act to intercede and enlighten humanity because the righteous abhor the suffering of sentient beings. It is a de-Romanized view of how many early Christians saw the final judgment not as retribution, but as restitution and resolution.
This idea, in the West, is so disquieting and so subversive because it goes entirely against the philosophical framework our entire society is based on. Can you have prisons where people rot for twenty years over a few grams of heroin in their back pocket? Can you have schools designed to encourage clique behaviors that isolate the gentle and the compassionate as weaklings and outsiders until they either buy into warrior virtue or collapse into despair? Can you have wars that are pitched through dogwhistle speeches and cronies in the church as leading up to the foretold final battle of good and evil, like we had in Iraq? Can you have a populace that approves of the summary executions of unarmed low-status individuals simply for “being a thug,” while simultaneously tolerating thuggish behaviors of high-status individuals?
That’s what happens when you de-Romanize. You begin to see just how warped, disturbed, and patently sick our society really is because it was founded on the ideals of warped, disturbed, and patently sick people who claimed to speak for God. And when belief in God became secondary, the belief in those same Roman virtues of the Arch-Thug, Constantine continues to this day and forms the cornerstone of our self-destructive cultural milieu.
De-Romanize your virtue. Seek God in mildness and compassion. Abhor suffering and adore friendship. The Second Reformation that finally breaks the Black Iron Prison is in you, all of you, and it’s so easy. The victory over the real forces of evil- the forces that cause us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others- can’t be won with rifles and bombs. The battlefield is your own mind and when you come to the understanding of Right Thought, Right Intention and Right Action, you have already won another battle and your victory can’t be taken away from you.