The Image of God: The future
What happened when Christians started acting like every person was made in God’s image?
JOHN DICKSON: Christians took this Jewish idea that everyone is made in the image of God and confronted the worst elements in Greek and Roman society. And high on their list was the Greek and Roman practice of exposing infants.
Christians collected abandoned babies and raised them as their own. It was, in effect, the first large-scale fostering program.
PETER HITCHENS: One of the major changes in the world as Christianity supplanted paganism was the end of the deliberate exposure of unwanted children, and indeed the increasing objection to the practice of abortion, because of this fundamental belief that all human life was equally valuable, that we are all are made in the image of God, and therefore cannot destroy each other.
JOHN DICKSON: Christians also developed a special concern for the more than two million slaves in the Roman Empire.
The first Christians had no social power. So, the New Testament contents itself with urging masters to treat slaves as equals, and urging slaves to love their masters.
But as Christians gained in confidence and social influence, they expanded their goals. A Christian text written here in Rome in the second century urges wealthy Christians to use their money, not just to feed the poor, but to buy up “distressed souls”. Slaves.
Instead of expanding their fields and renovating their villas, wealthy Christians were meant to purchase slaves they heard were being mistreated in the local district, bring them into their homes, and treat them as family. In this very early period, Christians couldn’t overturn Roman slave law, but they could modify the experience of slavery from within.
ROWAN WILLIAMS: One of the typical bits of the stories of the saints and the great figures of the fourth and fifth centuries, when they have a religious conversion or when they decide they need to be more serious as Christians, they free their slaves. It’s one of the things you do if you want to show you’re serious. You set your slaves free.
JOHN DICKSON: By the fifth century, Christians began to confront slavery head-on.
Saint Augustine was one of the most important figures of the early church. He was a some-time resident of Rome, and also the bishop of the port town of Hippo, over the horizon. He’s mainly remembered as a towering intellectual, but he was also involved in practical efforts to fight the slave trade that criss-crossed these waters.
In AD 428, in a letter to a church colleague, Augustine tells of the horror of the ancient slave trade and of church efforts to thwart it.
ACTOR (AUGUSTINE): About four months prior to my writing this there were brought in people assembled from various regions and especially Numidia by the Galatian dealers – for they either monopolise the trade or apply themselves to it with special relish – with a view to their being shipped out through the port of Hippo. There was not lacking a believer aware of our custom in acts of mercy of this kind who reported it to the church. Immediately 120 people were liberated by our members. Hardly anyone could keep back tears on hearing the different stories about how they were kidnapped or press-ganged before being handed over to the Galatian slavers.
JOHN DICKSON: It sounds noble now, but at the time, to their Greek and Roman neighbours, this Christian behaviour seemed odd and wasteful.
It’s sadly true that Christians didn’t overthrow the scourge of slavery for many more centuries. It’s equally true that in ancient times they were the only ones doing something practical to subvert it.
ROWAN WILLIAMS: Although Judaism and Christianity begin in the world where, for example, slavery is taken for granted, both of them have what I sometimes called a long fuse. That is, they light a long fuse of argument and discovery which eventually explodes and people realise, you know, actually we should do something about this.