The Ris melle or Brief world history of the East Syriac (Nestorian) monk John bar Penkaye was written ca. 690 AD. It contains in memre (=chapter or book) 15 a harrowing description of the famine and plague of 686-7. It describes the bodies left unburied, people fleeing to the mountains and then being robbed there by bandits, and many other details.
John attributes all these misfortunes to the sinfulness of the church. The latter he describes graphically.
It is quite tempting to see this as medieval superstition. God is the ultimate author of all, true; but to say this without qualification is to omit a substantial portion of the truth. God made the world in which we live; but the process contained many more elements than God snapping his fingers. The world contains both you and me. God is responsible for this, in a way; but my parents might have something to do with it also. Any account of my origins that mentions God but does not mention my parents would be more than a little misleading.
Similarly the world contains disease, and no doubt this is a consequence of the Fall. But that is not to deny that poor sanitation may be a more immediate cause.
Then John goes on:
Those who were alive, wandered in the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd. They wanted thereby to avoid the plague, which continued like a harvester, using dogs and wild beasts to gather them like sheaves, and (what was more distressing) they were constantly hounded by thieves to deprive them of everything and keep them away from their hideouts.
In this way, they were stripped of everything and as naked, and yet they did not think that it was impossible to escape God without repentance and without returning to him, the heart filled with repentance. They beat harshly any that reminded them of this and told him: “Go away from here; for we know that flight is much more beneficial than prayer; we have already repented, but we have not been helped, we can’t even do that any more.”
Men were reduced to despair because of their many sins; such pain came down upon them, and they did not repent at all…
My first impression, on reading this passage, was to sympathise with the fugitives. “We’ve tried repenting, and the plague did not go away, so what’s the point?” Indeed faced with such a disaster, some superstitious cleric admonishing them that it is all their own fault, and that they should ‘repent’, rather than helping them in practical terms, sounds like the very epitome of priest-craft, of the kind of monkish superstition that we are all taught to abhor. Would that “repentance” involve money for church funds, we would naturally ask next.
But then I thought about this some more. I can’t quite imagine the state of mind that says, “I’m going to try to repent to make the plague go away.” What is that about? And “I don’t believe in God, then, because I did repent and the plague did not go away.” There’s something odd here.
There is always a temptation for the clergyman in a superstitious age to make Christianity seem like theurgy — a set of rituals designed to invoke a greater power in order to obtain material benefits. This kind of “religion” is what paganism was, and in a way is more akin to an atomic power plant than a church. Doing this and that will make the sun come up, reasoned the pagans. Pray and the Lord — whoever he may be — will bless your lawsuit.
An clergyman, faced by an ignorant populace that cannot understand any appeal to anything but the most elementary benefit, may find himself preaching thus. I know nothing about what is called “Prosperity theology”, but it is attacked in terms that suggest its foes believe that it is a superstition of just this kind.
We can see, from John’s own account, that the tendency to attribute every misfortune to lack of praying was definitely present in the Nestorian clergy. He more or less writes as if he takes this view himself, although the odd phrase suggests that he is well aware of the limits of such a position.
Because … this is not the Christian view. “Go to church and God will make sure nothing bad happens” is not a Christian view. The life of St. Paul by itself is a refutation of this. The world is a nasty place. Bad things happen all the time, mostly to the better sort. A scumbag Prime Minister triumphs, and marches off, loaded with honours and riches, while a humble gospel preacher is held in a cell for seven hours, fingerprinted and his DNA taken, because an agent provocateur demanded to know whether he endorsed sodomy or not. This is life. It has always been thus, and always will. To the strong the spoils; to the weak… well, the Romans had a saying which epitomised their culture. Vae victis! or “Stuff the losers”.
Those who have come to know Christ, however, have discovered that this picture of the world is not all true. They have discovered that Christ is out there; that there really is someone who can help. It’s not like discovering you’ve won the lottery. Misfortunes do not go away, or diminish, but the reverse. But they find that the Lord is there to help them along the road. That is the Christian way, and it is a million miles away from the kind of complacent journalism — we’ve all seen it — that pretends with a snicker to ask someone accustomed to a life of comfort, who has somehow stubbed their toe, “Has this caused you to lose your faith?”
So I find myself much less sympathetic to the victims after this. To them, “God” was just a tool to get what they wanted. Repentance they did need. They did need God, and John — improbable as it seems, on first sight — was right to make this point.
Of course they also needed medical care. They needed good sanitation, which good government could provide, and proper law and order, which a good government should provide, and many other things.
It’s a warning that we must not be led astray by our instincts. Let’s look carefully, before we condemn.