Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Ancient Christian Ministry of Satire

While cyberspace is hopping with heated discussions about the importance of freedom of speech and the philosophy of satire (and its difference from plain and vicious ridicule), I stumbled over a curious article that surprisingly introduced an historical figure as, also, an early satirist: Tertullian. He used satire as a gracious (apologetic, in the full sense of the word) means of observing reality, defending truth and appealing to justice and the common good, not as a graphic condemnation and/or assault on fellow children of God.

He was a North African adherent of what was a minority religion in the territories in which he lived and traveled. He had seen his faith mocked publicly, with opponents parading cartoonish images in the streets to inflame the animus and contempt already directed against his beliefs. They declared his religion the threat to social order and cherished values, and they blamed its inexplicable increase in followers for the calamities befalling civil society. Many of his fellow believers had already been imprisoned, even tortured. He blamed “ignorance as the chief root of [the] unjustifiable bitterness” toward his faith.
This pious man predicted that a cataclysmic judgment was coming that would dismantle the very civilization that was threatening him, and that only his creed could save it and prevent a chaos and lawlessness heretofore unknown.
He decided the time had come to enter the lists and fight the good fight.
His name was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus. He was a Christian. And his weapon was . . . satire.
Here's an excerpt from Ad Nationes, noting some discrepancies in the justice system:
. . . when Christians, however, confess [to practicing the Christian faith] without compulsion, you apply the torture to induce them to deny. What great perverseness is this, when you stand out against confession, and change the use of the torture, compelling the man who frankly acknowledges the charge to evade it, and him who is unwilling, to deny it? You, who preside for the purpose of extorting truth, demand falsehood from us alone that we may declare ourselves not to be what we are. I suppose you do not want us to be bad men, and therefore you earnestly wish to exclude us from that character. To be sure, you put others on the rack and the gibbet, to get them to deny what they have the reputation of being. Now, when they deny (the charge against them), you do not believe them but on our denial, you instantly believe us.
There are other examples of satire to be found in Tertullian's works, but it gets a bit more PG-13 rated.