Back in the days of the late Roman Empire, a monk journeyed from his home in rural Asia Minor (now Turkey) to visit the great city of Rome. Out of curiosity, he joined a crowd headed into the Coliseum. After finding a seat, he was horrified to see men fighting each other to the death for spectators’ amusement.
He staggered down the steps and into the ring, thrust himself between the gladiators, and cried out, “Friends, for Christ’s sake, forbear!” One of the combatants ran the defenseless man through with his sword. As the little monk bled to death on the sand, the jeering crowds fell silent, stunned and shamed. First in a trickle, then in a flood, they poured out of the Coliseum, whose arena was never stained with human blood again.
Here’s the more accurate version of the story, as recorded by Bishop Theodoret of Syria (ca. 425): An ascetic named Telemachus, while visiting Rome, was shocked by the gladiatorial games. His effort to put a stop to them enraged the crowd, who stoned him to death. It appeared that Telemachus had only enhanced the entertainment that day, until Emperor Honorius heard the story and was moved to ban the games.
Even if that version of the story is not entirely true, it’s a historical fact that gladiatorial games ended during the reign of Honorius, and Telemachus may well have been the inspiration. The “little monk” represents a profound principle that entered the Western world around a.d. 33—that raw power was not the controlling ethos of life on earth.
Christianity claimed kings and kingdoms, rewrote laws, and sparked revolutions the world over.
That’s the theme of historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Before Christ, it would have been inconceivable that a religion based on the sacrificial and shameful death of a god—a religion that obligated its adherents to the same kind of humility—would have made any inroads at all. But in time, Christianity claimed kings and kingdoms, rewrote laws, and sparked revolutions the world over. It planted in Western conscience the concept of human rights, obligations to the poor, and defense of the weak. Through weakness, in fact, Christ had conquered the world.
But what happened to power? Obviously it’s still with us. The abuse of power is what Western civilization is all about, according to critical-theory scholars. While they’re right in much of the detail, they’re wrong in substance. Oppression is not limited to the West. According to Nietzsche, the primal urge of all life is to discharge its strength—the “will to power,” usually understood as force or manipulation.
But everyone has some measure of strength to discharge, even if it’s only over oneself. Everyone has a degree of power, and the ability to determine how to use it: squandered in brute force, or made perfect in the “weakness” of Christ?
Reading Revelation this month, I was struck by the image of the Lamb that was slain, who alone is worthy to open the scroll of judgment (Revelation 5:6-9). With it, He receives power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He told His followers (Matthew 28:18). In the interval between His departure and His return, that power is devoted to building His Church, as the Church builds His kingdom (“Therefore, go and make disciples”).
But afterward, His power is exercised in judgment. Every murderous tyrant, every destructive war, every natural disaster, will pale in comparison to the havoc brought by the gentle Lamb, crowned in John’s vision with seven horns symbolizing His perfect strength.
In the current chatter about white supremacy and oppression and microaggression, we’ve lost a sense of what real power is. When the weak win against the strong through the humility of early saints like Telemachus, Christ calls out, “For My sake, forbear!” When the script of judgment is passed to the Lamb, and the seals broken, no one will stand except by Him.