Watching the Republican party these past few weeks has reminded me of the old Donatist controversy. You remember that, don’t you? Way back in the 4th century, around the time of St. Augustine. What?! You haven’t heard of it? My goodness, what don’t they teach in school these days?
Back in the last decade of the third century A.D., there was a big religious liberty dust-up throughout the Roman empire when Emperor Diocletian decided to launch a formal persecution against Christianity. (Faith-based hospitals weren’t willing to use abortifacients in their clinics, and Christian colleges weren’t willing to bend their sexuality standards, so Caesar got his undies in a bunch and…wait, sorry, wrong century.)
Anyway, waves of persecutions had rolled over the church off and on for three centuries. Diocletian’s would be the last, but was quite savage in certain pockets of the empire, particularly in northern Africa, (which was sort of the Bible belt of the western world.) One of the edicts was that to save your life, you had to offer a sacrifice to the emperor and hand over all your sacred books to the authorities. This particularly targeted the clergy, for they were usually the only ones in possession of books.
Invariably, while some accepted martyrdom or imprisonment, not a few handed their books over to save their skins. In time, Diocletian went to face his Maker (must have been one uncomfortable exit-interview for him) and the persecution came to an end. Gradually, Christians began to peek their heads out again and get back to business as usual.
But it was not business as usual.
When clergy and church leaders who had turned their books over to the government gravitated back to their former positions, large numbers of Christians took umbrage at the thought. Social media – such as it was back then – lit up. These cowards were traditores, they shouted, which meant “those who turned over (the holy books)” (not to be confused with the word traitor.)
The anger became a movement, and soon leaders were appointed to guide the movement. One of them, Donatus Magnus, was appointed bishop, and his followers became known as Donatists. The controversy deepened as the traditore leaders began to baptize and ordain others. Donatists refused to recognize the validity of these baptisms and ordinations, and soon a full-fledge schism erupted, which would take more than a century to quell.
As I look back at that chapter in history, I am filled with sympathy for the Christians who lived in those times. Honestly, I understand both sides. If I had lost my property or watched a family member die for their faith, then watched as church leadership ranks filled back up after the persecution with those whom I knew had failed to hold the line, I would have been outraged.
On the other hand, I have no ability to appreciate what that must be like to face the ultimate test of courage. It’s easy to sit here in my leather office chair and think brash thoughts. But in that moment, my knees would surely buckle. My heart would pound. My head would swim. It wouldn’t take much to summon great compassion for anyone whose courage failed them.
Things got fairly ugly on both sides of the debate back then. Oh there were some important councils that were held, and some very robust and important doctrinal discussions and decisions that were made that strengthened the church. But overall, it wasn’t a good show.
One could have hoped that cooler, calmer, forgiving heads would have prevailed, but it was not to be. Poor Constantine who became emperor in 306, and was highly favorable to Christianity, must have been bewildered to see such vitriol on display as he first looked at the inner workings of the Church. “And these are the good guys?!” he must have thought.
Fast forward to our time. Think politics now, not faith. The Republican party faces perhaps the greatest test in its history. A dire Trumpnundrum, if ever there was one. There are two sides, both with very understandable viewpoints. (The faultlines run directly through my own household, as my wife and I discuss daily what to do on election day.)
To not cast a vote for Trump is to yield the presidency to a person who is all but assured of advancing every poisonous item on the progressive checklist, thus solidifying in all likelihood the decline in our culture, economy and military. Watching Ms. Clinton during the third debate stare off into space as the horrors of partial birth abortion were described was chilling. (Yet we need to revisit the second amendment for the sake of toddler safety. Am I missing something? Driving a skewer through a 9-month fetus’ head is OK, but save the toddler?!)
On the other hand, to cast a vote for Trump is to potentially yield the presidency to a person who just spent a week tweeting about women’s body sizes, boasted about assaulting women, and when accused of said abuse, offered the defense of “Look at her. I don’t think so.” And that’s just one week’s body of work. Add up the last 12 months of this man’s deep thinking, and it makes your head hurt to try to understand how this is the chosen candidate of one of our two major political parties.
And yet, a vote would be cast for him – in the hope (simply a wispy hope; there are no guarantees here) – that he might be influenced by enough of the right people to – on the off chance – advance policies and select nominees favorable to preserve – what would likely only be a semblance – of conservatism.
Civil war is coming. It’s already seen in the comment boxes of every conservative writer who has dared lay out their thinking, and taken a side. Civil war is coming, unless, unless – it’s such a long shot – people on both sides of the Trump divide lay down their guns, acknowledge that they all – each and every one of them – were sideswiped by a whirlwind nobody saw coming, admit there were mistakes of judgment everywhere you looked, yet refuse to rant, and blame and condemn for however this shakes out. Cool, calm and forgiving heads must prevail.
Or…like the fourth century church, Republicans can sign up for a century of infighting that will do nothing to advance the mission and message they say they care so deeply about.