Every year’s end means that people of faith will be deluged with two things: wishes for a Happy New Year and appeals for charities of every conceivable variety. Americans gave $390 billion to charity in 2016, nearly one-third of it in the month of December. For charities and their beneficiaries, the holiday spirit – and Americans’ desire to lower their year-end tax bill – are a godsend. But ancient pagans had a different view of private, Christian almsgiving, which still holds important lessons for our day.
After centuries of persecution and repression, the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. However, within a generation his nephew would try to restore paganism to the Roman Empire. Julian – remembered by historians as Julian the Apostate – came to the throne in 361 after rejecting his Christian baptism and celebrating the pagan rites that had not fully lost their hold on his subjects.
Julian tried to use all the powers of the state to launch a pagan revival. He organized a parallel, pagan priesthood based on the Church’s diocesan model. He tried to use legal mechanisms to deny Christians their recently acquired equal rights. But he saw one obstacle above all preventing a return to the old ways: Christian charity.
He wrote a letter to the pagan high-priest Arsacius lamenting:
[I]t is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort, and the Hellenic villages to offer their first fruits to the gods; and accustom those who love the Hellenic religion to these good works by teaching them that this was our practice of old.
With the letter, the emperor sent several thousand bushels of grain and pints of wine to be distributed by the priests, at public expense.
It had to be this way, since paganism had produced no charity, nor any compulsion to offer it. In the Greco-Roman world, charity was given to enhance the giver’s reputation and make others beholden to him. Since the poor could not return the favor, they received little charity. (Contrast with St. Luke 14:12-14.)
Naturally, there was more than philanthropy behind Julian’s tax bequest. One of the “fundamental issues” behind Julian’s social policy “is that of patronage” wrote two experts, Walter Roberts of the University of North Texas and Michael DiMaio Jr. of Salve Regina University.
“Julian feared that Christian practices were causing many citizens to look to other sources than the emperor for protection and security,” they explained. As far as Julian was concerned, the “emperor was supreme patron, and it was his duty to provide for his clients, the citizens of society.”
Furthermore, the emperor wanted this pagan “charity” to create a new government bureaucracy, cementing both power and loyalty to himself:
Julian wished various societal elites to function as intercessors between himself and the broader society at large. Julian wished for his religious officials to serve in this same capacity, and it infuriated him that Christian leaders were usurping a role that was rightly his to bestow.
Julian reigned only two years (361-363), and Emperor Jovian reestablished Christian rights during his eight-month tenure. However, one may hear his view of Christian charity echo through the ages – and into contemporary times.