According to Tom Holland, the Christian revolution began just outside one of the world’s first gated communities.
These weeks I’m highlighting a few stories from Tom Holland’s remarkable book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. He tells this story because “to live in a Western country is to live in a society saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions.” Holland writes this as an atheist while recognizing that the emergence of Christianity is “the single most transformative development in Western history.”
Christianity’s emergence began just outside a gated community, which is where Holland begins his book: “Some three or four decades before the birth of Christ, Rome’s first heated swimming pool was built on the Esquiline Hill. The location, just outside the city’s ancient walls, was a prime one. In time, it could become a showcase for some of the wealthiest people in the world: an immense expanse of villas and parks. But there was a reason why the land beyond the Esquiline Gate had been left undeveloped for so long.”
It was the stench. The land beyond the Gate smelled wretched. It was where Roman crucifixions took place. “There were hundreds and hundreds of corpse-hung crosses.” For the Romans, crucifixion was the worst possible death anyone could endure. Not only was it painfully excruciating (from the word crucifixion), it was scandalous. A Roman felt tainted by even viewing it. Hence, the valley below the Esquiline Hill was the meanest stretch of land in the city. It served as a killing field for criminals, slaves, undesirables, even unwanted babies.
The stench became a problem when Rome burst its ancient limits. The luxurious homes built around Rome’s first heated swimming pool on the Esquiline Hill couldn’t stand the smell and sight of the land beyond the gate. So they walled off their community with aromatic plants and trees. They served as a barrier, masking the stench while hiding the sight of all those corpses being picked apart by wild animals and scavengers. Holland writes that the Romans living in this gated community didn’t want to “think much about it.”
Which leads to a crucifixion that took place some sixty or seventy years after the building of first heated swimming pool in Rome. The location, though, wasn’t Esquiline, but another hill, outside the walls of Jerusalem: Golgotha, which means the place of a skull. The victim was a Jew named Jesus. Holland marvels that the eternal God would have a Son who became flesh, and then be tortured to death on a cross, yet, in the centuries that followed, this corpse would serve “as an icon of majesty.”
For Christians today, it’s worth reflecting on how this revolution began just outside one of the first gated communities. Today there are built communities that are physically “gated.” Is some of the attraction because the inhabitants don’t want to “think much about” how gates keep undesirables from fouling their manicured lawns or knocking on their doors asking for food?
I don’t know. I’m just asking a question.
Today there are also communities that are not physically “gated,” but lie behind virtual walls. For decades, the city of Baltimore engaged in redlining maps, walling off White neighborhoods from Black homeowners. In this way, White homeowners didn’t have to “think much about” Black folks possibly moving in and sullying their White neighborhoods.
I have a sense that there are thousands of virtual gated communities today. They’re in the faith community, the political community, our colleges and universities, in the debates around climate change, and so on. The list is long. My sense is the inhabitants of these gated communities don’t want to “think much about” inconvenient truths or dissenting views.
Christians ought to. I suggest this because of how the Apostle Paul described the church in Corinth. Scholars attribute the overall rise of Christianity to the upper class as well as the undesirables converting to Christ. But in Corinth, a city with gated communities, he said that not many in the church were from the upper class. It was populated by the city’s undesirables. Does this mean the church in Corinth began outside the city’s gated communities? Did its wealthy inhabitants inside its gated communities not want to “think much about” the city’s undesirables?
I don’t know. I just know Tom Holland’s remarkable book raises questions for Christians who seek to not be walled off from the sights and stench of our fallen world.