Infectious Motivation

Around 362 A.D., at some fancy palace dressed in marble, Emperor Julian was fuming. Julian was the last of Rome’s pagan emperors, who led one last effort to revive pagan the religious practices that were withering in a world turning Christian. Devotion to Caesar and to the pantheon gods was being replaced by devotion to a rebel crucified a few centuries back in an obscure corner of the empire. How dared they?

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Julian focused on the building of charities, believing that moral character was the secret behind Christian efforts. Indeed, when calamitous plagues decimated millions of people throughout the Roman Empire, Christians headed relief efforts to take care of the sick and dying in a context which virtually lacked social services. Thus Julian complained that

when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.

Their shrewdness was so great, in Julian’s eyes, that they even “support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”[1]

But Julian’s efforts failed. It is not simple, after all, to summon multitudes of people to start caring for strangers, even sick ones, even dying ones, when the disease was infectious and many who cared for the dying ended switching places with them, dying in their stead, and freeing the sick to go live again.  As historian Rodney Stark concludes, Julian’s mission missed its core component:

Paganism had failed to develop the kind of voluntary system of good works that Christians had been constructing for more than three centuries; moreover, paganism lacked the religious ideas that would have made such organized efforts plausible.[2]

In other words, Julian’s state-enforced organization lacked the core beliefs needed to mobilize people for costly self-giving. Why should someone care for a stranger while the world was collapsing under a plague and one could be a victim of his own care of others? That enigma has been, of course, the frustration of every government since Julian, for people’s time and arms can be bought with a paycheck, but not their hearts. Pure altruism can only be genuine.

But the humble folks from Galilee had a motivation no one else had. Those simple peasants and artisans and widows and slaves had received a moral injection that transformed their outlook on life. Their God had died in their place. He had accepted wounds which were not his own, crucifixion nails that drove in the weight of the sins of the world, so they could now go live again. They were survivors of a trade-off, people with a story to tell and a sacrifice to emulate. Love of strangers was costly, but someone had already given himself for them.

René Breuel


[1] Julian, quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 84.

[2] Ibid., 189.

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