By Jim Downard
In 360 CE Constantine’s nephew Julian became Emperor of all Rome, and decided all this Christianizing of the empire needed to stop. Make Rome Great Again! Or at least put a halt to allowing the military to hunt heretics as some in the flexing Christian religion wanted them to. Julian’s granting of freedom for all sects ironically allowed a certain Athanasius to get back into the picture, who after Julian died in 363 on a military campaign in Persia (thus ending the spurt of pagan ecumenical toleration), played a part in the Second Ecumenical Council of 381 that made Christianity the only acceptable form of worship.
Of course none of that addressed the moral and economic dry rot that had been decaying the Roman world since the Republic, a culture that worshiped authority and deferred to privileged elites while enjoying their publicly-funded spectacles down at the Colosseum and Hippodrome. Their agrarian estates relying on slave labor (who couldn’t quit without their owner’s manumission) morphed without a burp into a feudal society based on serfs (who couldn’t leave without their lord’s permission).
Fast-forward to the present, past Renaissance scientific revolutions, religious reformations, and Enlightenment political reforms, and we witness a nation and world seething with uncertainty over the meaning of their past and what path to take to the future. Economic inequality, worries over changing values and, for some, a yearning for an idealized past that existed mainly in the revisionist pages of a David Barton “history” book.
And along came our Donald the Apostate. No bundle of toleration he, that consummate panderer has blown every dog whistle and deflected every setback in a torrent of tweets and invectives. Steve Miller hovers in the wings as Trump bangs the xenophobe drum:Stop Those Immigrants, They’re Taking Advantage Of Us!
And of course don’t believe any of the “Fake News” speaking against Emperor Donald the Tremendous (genius rubs off you know, from his uncle at MIT, as Trump assures us such brilliance literally runs in his family).
The Teflon President sizzling while the citizenry fries in the pan.
And then the Plague came.
Crises bring out the true character of individuals and nations. That’s where your ethics (if you have any) gets put to the test. In my experience everyone I’ve encountered in my brief forays for victuals and supplies over the last weeks have been of good nature, showing by their two yard distance and joviality just how decent and steadfast “We the People” genuinely are (when not dog-whistled at, at least).
While most people of faith recognized the danger of Covid-19 and embraced the unsettling but necessary social distancing practices, even to doing church services on Zoom, some are not so sanguine. As Trump’s Golden-Plated Calf ground to a halt (an economy where the Dow Jones was higher than a kite even as many working families lacked the resources to deal with even a $400 surprise expense), a minority went into a fury, heedless of a virus that doesn’t pay the slightest attention to twitter scorn or sign Non-Disclosure Agreements.
Inspired by a certain Secretary of Education and her pals, gangs of strident protesters surged into public view these past weeks to demand the Old Ways be resumed. “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten,” as the strains of Dixie put it (we’re talking Confederate flags again, gang). Try to “Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland” as the mobile petri dishes of rifle-waving delusion paraded, wearing camos but no masks, as if Covid-19 would see them as other than a fresh transmission vector.
We’re a long way (fortunately) from the exhausted cruel desperation of the Pestilence Times depicted in H. G. Well’s disconcertingly visionary “Things to Come” movie, which (as Arthur C. Clarke recalled) brought roars of laughter from its 1936 audience when it depicted the bombing of London by invading air armadas in the next war of 1940. That fictional war dragged on for decades, until a deadly plague spurred on by their use of chemical warfare led to the local strong men of the 1970s scrounging what rifles remained to start shooting the afflicted.
Their world was eventually rebuilt by the science-loving airmen, the “Wings Over the World” technocrats who “tidied things up” over the next decades, leading to an air-conditioned 21st century where people watched videos of the Good Old Days on their flat-screen TVs.
We in 2020 are putting the sequence the other way around. Wall screens and smart phones ahead of climate disaster and plague. But the issues are hauntingly the same.
What shall we do? How do we act, right now, in the moment, to embody what we believe, and act on those to make things right and good again. And what is the Right and the Good?
It’s the eternal conundrum, one confronting alike those of religious faith and those of none at all (such as yours truly).
My motto is to try to enjoy oneself (on Zoom for the moment), but as much as possible still to be kind, and don’t make a nuisance.
We can all see who is being kind, and who isn’t. And who is making a nuisance (Donald the Apostate comes to mind), compared to those who are rolling up their sleeves to make a difference for the Good and the True, the millions showing what they are made of daily, like José Andrés (the celebrated chef whose World Central Kitchen has plunged into the Covid-19 relief effort in a way some governments have not).
At the end of Wells’ “Things to Come” their 21st century protagonists are facing challenges very different from where their world began in the warfare disaster of 1940. They’ve built a Space Gun and are about to explore the cosmos, and some of the well-fed beneficiaries of their hard-won advancement want no more of it.
“An end to all this Progress,” one of their leaders rants over global television. He pines for an imaginary Good Old Days too.
The builders of the Space Gun in 2035 offered this challenge to their 1936 audience, to choose to go forward, exploring, learning, advancing, even without end, to the farthest reaches of the universe … or turn back, hunker down with our fleeting existence as individuals on a solitary and tiny world, and await the end of it with fists clenched and dreams embalmed.
“Which shall it be?” we are asked.
Well its 2020, and we have our own challenges to face. To apply our ethics and knowledge and even faith to either make a better world, now, not 100 years from now, or cower down and watch the mobile petri dishes drag us back to the failed visions of an imaginary past where even they wouldn’t have wanted to have lived.
- Ask An Atheist: A Strictly Negative Position? - July 15, 2020
- Ask an Atheist: Ever hesitant to announce your atheism? - July 7, 2020
- Donald the Apostate and Things to Come - May 24, 2020
- Ask An Atheist: Better Without Religion? - March 8, 2020
- Ask An Atheist: A Loving God? - February 17, 2020
- Ask An Atheist: Freedom of Conscience - February 7, 2020
- Ask An Atheist: Atheist or Secular? - January 20, 2020
- Trump By the Movies (Popcorn Optional) - November 12, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: What if I Believe in Reincarnation? - September 19, 2019
- Ask An Atheist: I don’t know vs. I don’t believe - July 5, 2019