|Saint Francis worked to restore Jesus'|
identity as a poor man.
Jesus was something of a loser himself, a laborer from the hinterlands of Galilee. He was evidently illiterate and possibly a bastard. His ministry appealed especially to the sick, to the poor, the crazy, to women and to children. The gospel stories feature common people, not just the kings and heroes that were standard characters in other literature. Early Christianity, as Celsus noted, appealed to people of lowly status. Especially in Paul’s churches, women could be prophetesses and apostles. The communities he founded were havens of egalitarianism. Only later would editors amend Paul’s letters to tell women to be silent in church and to make other concessions to mainstream culture. Slaves and women could achieve heroic status by facing lions in the arena, a spectacle that demonstrated their devotion and led to the faster spread of Christianity. Christians distinguished themselves by valuing some of the least valuable people in the Roman Empire: newborn girls. Girls were commonly exposed at birth rather than raised, except by Christians. Christians also tended the sick through plagues, establishing an enduring Christian tradition of care for the ill and injured.
By the end of the first century, the first bishops had developed among Christian churches, and within a hundred years bishops would have control over the whole church. They established a patriarchal hierarchy modeled after Roman rule, a hierarchy that grew in wealth and power through the classical period and into the Middle Ages. Even so, a distinctive counterculture survived within Christianity. Commoners and women could claim direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit for their visions and revelations. The labor-friendly traditions of the Jews, of Jesus and his followers, and of Paul the tent-maker lent a certain honor to honest labor, standing in contrast to the labor-despising culture of elites everywhere. Charity has always been part of Christian practice, and a bishop’s income was traditionally equal to his territory’s charity. Bishops could take in more only if their churches also gave out more. Monasteries and convents provided security and organization for the people who turned to them, especially after Benedict established work as the rule for monastic life rather than just contemplation. Saint Francis one-upped Jesus himself by calling for compassion to a forgotten population of vulnerable individuals: animals. Later, Franciscan monks opened to door for today’s modern credit economy when they broke the age-old taboo against usury, lending at interest. In a campaign to provide working capital to the poor, they applied for a received a special dispensation to lend money at interest. That special dispensation spread until the old crime of usury became business as usual. Now common people can get loans, not just the rich.
As Europeans secularized, they put into practice the Christian concern for the most vulnerable. Nursing reforms, for example, created the modern, professional nurse, where previously “nurses” had been menial servant girls. Florence Nightingale spearheaded this effort, with Jesus as her inspiration. Nietzsche blamed Christianity for spreading democracy and egalitarianism. When the English utilitarians presumed that each person’s utility is equally valuable, Nietzsche identified Christianity as the source for this assumption. Quakers and other nonconformist Christians called for the abolition of slavery and eventually got their way. In the States, the black church served as incubator for community leaders. In the 20th century, this community gave rise to Martin Luther King, who called on other Christian ministers to join him in campaigning for the dignity of blacks and of the poor.
In the 20th century, the hot new expression of Christianity was Pentecostalism. It’s probably the closest thing today to a 1st-century Christian church. It appeals to the poor and has been spreading especially in South America and Africa. They have no bishops. Believers speak in tongues as early Christians did, a miracle that’s too spontaneous and unpredictable for any standard church hierarchy to condone. As for mainline denominations, you might find them out there supporting today’s “losers.” They run various programs to help the homeless, refugees, illegal immigrants, prisoners, the elderly and other vulnerable populations. In North Carolina, Christians are suing the state, demanding the freedom to marry gay couples.
Christianity began as a counterculture movement, but almost immediately editors and other serious men went to work to bring the movement into line with mainstream, patriarchal expectations. In some ways, Christianity developed into its opposite. Instead of being a sect that pious Jews voluntarily joined, it became the default religion of an empire of gentiles, complete with Roman-style monarchs ruling as bishops. But Christianity still reflects humble beginnings as a home-grown, rural movement for peasants and outsiders.
Spiritual Identity and Mental Disability: A post about a “loser” who's welcome at church.