Toleration

Outside the Supreme Court for oral arguments in the DOMA case (March 2013).
At the Supreme Court for oral arguments against the Defense of Marriage Act (March 2013).

Nearly three months ago, I was outside the Supreme Court for oral arguments in the “Defense of Marriage Act.” Today, the verdict: repealed.

Toleration may not always be inevitable, but it is teachable. And this month provides a powerful teachable moment–for anyone who’s still dragging their feet about the realities of cultural change.

Seventeen hundred and two years ago, on June 13, 313 A.D., Christians heard their version of the DOMA repeal. With one decree from the rulers of Rome, Christians heard that they were now full participants in the empire, just like their non-Christian peers. No longer branded followers of an illegal religion, Christians had finally won a hard-fought social triumph: to practice their faith without any fear of legal reprisal. 

It was a victory that had little to do with converting everyone else to their side. It also took much longer than we usually think.

Two years before the famous “Edict of Milan,” the emperor Galerius had rolled back almost of a decade of legalized discrimination and prosecution. In the words of this lesser known edict (preserved by a Christian writer), Christians were permitted “to be Christian again.” Unfortunately, that decision didn’t stick. After Galerius’s death, the Christian right to worship was repealed. (Ancient Romans knew how to drag their feet, too.)

Christians would wait two more years until Constantine and his co-ruler, Licinius, were given the chance for a do-over. Meeting in Milan in 313 and drafting a letter to the people of the Eastern empire, their decision was the one that went down in history as a landmark in the story of religious liberty.

True, in a world where Christians made up no more than five to ten percent of the population, we might be puzzled to think how Christians ever possibly achieved anything like “equal rights.” But if we see the rise of Christianity as a social phenomenon, we also might not need to hang this turning point in Roman history around notions of Christian exceptionalism.

At the time of Galerius, even the time of Constantine, Christians clearly hadn’t “converted” everyone to their side. Rome woke up to the changing times because, well, many Romans lived, worked, and woke up next to Christians—without being afraid of them. There were Christian soldiers, business associates, and, gasp, yes, even family members of high-ranking government officials who were “out” as Christians by the early fourth century (I tell the story of the first group in my forthcoming piece in the Journal of Early Christian Studies.) There are many more waiting to be told.

As for what happened in the years that followed 313 A.D., that, too, is going to need another look.

Law