Christian Hierarchy

Note 14: Gregory I: Creation, Hierarchy, and Early Christian Attitudes Toward Slavery.

Gregory I, Bishop of Rome, Supreme Pontiff of the Apostolic See from 590 to 604 A. D., soon after her conversion to the Christian Faith, wrote to Brunichild, queen of the Franks, exhorting her in the proper attitude to take toward her new relationship with God. He says in a letter to the queen:

"most excellent daughter, it becomes you to be such as to be able to subject yourself to a lord above you. For in submitting the neck of your mind to the fear of the Almighty Lord you confirm your dominion also over subject nations, and by subjecting yourself to the service of the Creator you bind your subjects the more devotedly to yourself."

The relationship Gregory expresses here between creationism, concepts of social and political hierarchy, in terms of submission to a higher authority, are so typically Christian and European that they have always already stood at the foundation of Western civilization. One can argue, however, and probably should, that this same complex of ideological perceptions, while always seen in the West as the only rational means of achieving a civilized state among sinful human agents, is also, and at the same time, the primary cause for generating the kinds of civil and religious strife among people that continually threaten to destroy the very fabric of human community its precepts are meant to create and sustain.

Gregory makes this issue clear in the continuation of his Papal advice to the queen when he warns her against the pagan practices of her people:

" As to this also we no less exhort you, that you should restrain the rest of your subjects under the control of discipline from sacrificing to idols, being worshipers of trees, or exhibiting sacrilegious sacrifices of the heads of animals; seeing that it has come to our ears that many of the Christians both resort to the churches and also (horrible to relate!) do not give up their worshiping of demons."

Whether or not the "religious" practices Gregory has heard about among the Franks can, or should, be related to animism is a question difficult to answer but the point which he makes in no uncertain terms with regard to these "native" religions is that they must not be tolerated under any circumstances. He continues his exhortation in these terms making this point clear:

"But, since these things are altogether displeasing to our God, and He does not own divided minds, provide ye for their being salubriously restrained from these unlawful practices; lest (God forbid it!) the sacrament of holy baptism serve not for their rescue, but for their punishment. If therefore you know of any that are violent, if of any that are adulterers, if of any that are thieves, or bent on other wicked deeds, make haste to appease God by their correction, that He may not bring upon you the scourge due to unfaithful races, which, so far as we see, is already lifted up for the punishment of many nations; lest, if . . . the wrath of Divine vengeance should be kindled by the doings of the wicked, the plague of war should destroy the sinners whom the precepts of God recall not to the way of rectitude."

That the Bishop of Rome quickly and inevitably turns to the threat of "Divine vengeance" and the "plague of war" against the wicked who persist in the practice of worshiping demons should not surprise anyone who is familiar with early Christian attitudes toward the other, toward anyone who does not believe as they do. The idea that there is a "scourge" to be brought against "unfaithful races" only fleshes out the ultimate ideology of genocide inherent in the teachings of the early church Fathers. "Divine vengeance" in a "plague of war," after all, cannot be realized without the willing participation of human agents, "Christian soldiers," as it were, and one can rest assured that Brunichild did not misunderstand the message Gregory was sending her in this letter. It would be one thing, of course, if God had ever descended from heaven to lead an army of annihilation against the wicked and unfaithful races of demon worshipers, but as far as anyone can say historically that has never happened. Only good Christians and true have ever engaged in that kind of activity against the other, first in Western Europe and then in the Americas. Spreading the Christian Faith through wars of annihilation against the unbeliever has always been the favored method of conversion practiced by true believers. Here that ideology is given full and authoritative voice by the Holy Father of the Apostolic See of Roman Catholicism.

In another letter, this one to the Bishop of Naples (Fortunatus), Gregory addresses the problem of how to dispose of slaves, some Pagan, others Christian, who have fallen into the hands of certain Jewish slave-traders from the provinces of Gaul. Gregory has nothing whatsoever to say about the pagan slaves and addresses his authority to how the Christians should be handled. He tells the Bishop that they should not be allowed to remain in the possession of the Jewish traders for more than forty days, unless they are ill and cannot be sold before that amount of time has expired. He takes care, at the same time, to articulate with all the authority of his Papal voice precisely what the church's position is with regard to the slave-trade of the sixth and seventh centuries in Europe. He tells Fortunatus that Basilius, the Jewish slave-trader, who wants to give several of the Christian slaves to his sons, who are apparently converts to the faith, may do so and that

"certain slaves, under the title of a gift . . . may serve him as their master all but in name; and that, if after this any should perchance have believed that they might fly to the Church for refuge in order to become Christians, they may not be reclaimed to freedom, but to the dominion of those to whom they had before been given."

The point of this statement, of course, is to maintain the status quo of the slave-trade that existed at the time in Western Europe simply because it benefited the Christian as much as it did the Jew and allowed the rulers of the various kingdoms among the Gauls to dispose of undesirable members of society at a clear profit to all concerned with maintaining the hierarchical structures of European civilization. Again, no one should be surprised to find the Supreme Pontiff of the Christian church making a statement like this one, since the issue of the slave-trade was not settled in North America until the end of the Civil War in 1865. To believe that Christianity and its ideology against the other, even when the other is one of its own, has had nothing to do with the way Europeans have always already treated people of color, people who are perceived as inferior to the faithful, is to turn a deadly and blind eye to the hatred that has always colored the true message of the Gospel.

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