Religion – War – Victory – Peace

Dom and Sarah Crossan in front of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome

Dom and Sarah Crossan in front of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) in Rome

In a previous post, I wrote about Dom’s matrix for peace in the Roman world:  first religion, then war, then victory, and finally peace. And it is literally displayed on the four  huge panels on the Ara Pacis Augustae, which was reassembled from bits all across Europe (a few are still in the Louvre) and is now housed in a beautiful glass museum structure designed by American architect Richard Meier.
P1000932Religion: The first panel shows a scene from Aeneas, legendary founder of the Julian dynasty, making sacrifice.
War: The next panel shows Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome with the God Mars (Ares).
P1000967 - Version 2
Victory: The goddess Roma sits on the captured battle gear of defeated enemies.
Peace: The goddess Pax, a personification of peace with children, fruits, cattle and abundance; the very picture of fecundity.
The order of this matrix – shown by the four main panels of the Ara Pacis – is critical. If we are devout and make sacrifice to the gods, it will assure that we can accomplish territorial aggrandizement: the very heart of empire, and therefore, imperial theology.  And if we have been true in our sacrifice and brave in war, it will assure our victory. (Think of the image that we call winged victory…looks an awful lot like what the church passes off as an angel….see below.) And After victory in battle, we will be rewarded with peace.
The Ara Pacis was commissioned in 13 BC and completed in 9 BC, as a celebration of Augustus’s victory and “pacifying” Gaul and Spain. Bits of it wound up in museums all over Europe (and some still resides in the Louvre).
Not St. Michael....the Nike from Ostia.

Not St. Michael….the Nike from Ostia.

This matrix is not entirely dissimilar to our own Pax Americana. How many times have we heard, “We are a Christian nation,” and then have those who have spoken those words rattle the sabers and go to war against an enemy like Iraq? (American combat deaths in Iraq totaled 3,542 and Iraqi civilian deaths totaled at least 116,000 according the UK’s Telegraph…all in search of nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction.” Are we more like Rome or more like Jesus?) The death toll in Iraq suggests victory, but the political instability caused by the war makes victory impossible to claim. Though neither was a “good leader,” Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam kept each other in check. We in the U.S. sense relative peace because we do not live in Kabul or Baghdad or Gaza. But we don’t have true peace, just as the Romans in Italy didn’t have true peace while their legions were being slaughtered (and slaughtering) along the Rhine.


Look at the artifact, Benito!

Nike carrying fasces toward Mussolini's name...Fascist architecture near the mausoleum of Augustus.

Nike carrying fasces toward Mussolini’s name…Fascist architecture near the mausoleum of Augustus.

During the Fascist (from the Latin word, fasces, a bundle of bound rods with an ax…see photo: the Nike is carrying them) Era in Italy, Benito Mussolini used the Ara Pacis as an element of propaganda to show his connection with the Roman Empire. It was under his leadership that the Ara Pacis was reassembled. And when Adolf Hitler visited Rome in 1938, Mussolini included the Ara Pacis on the tour for the leader of the Third Reich. (Reich is the German word for empire.)


figurine of Paul, 4th century

So, what’s the alternative?

The matrix suggested by the apostle Paul, based on his own Judaism and on following Jesus is markedly different:

First, religion. Then justice. Then peace. (No war and no victory based on military superiority.) It’s the same matrix that the Hebrew prophets tried to instill in the people, against the will of leaders who wanted to adopt a matrix similar to Rome’s. Micah asks, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The concept of shalom is absolutely central to the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, and it is no accident at all that Paul’s opening to authentic letters uses this phrase, which condenses his theology into three words: Grace and peace.

Grace (charis) is an unearned gift and peace for Paul was not the absence of war, but the condition of right relationship with God and humankind based of just action and the wholeness of creation. When I graduated from divinity school, I had some beach stones I collected in Maine inscribed with the Greek word, charis, and on the reverse side, shalom. I gave one to each of my closest friends. (Amazing what gravestone companies will engrave!)

So, I guess the question left for each of us to grapple with is whose team do we want to play for? Which matrix do we want to adopt: Caesar’s of Jesus and Paul’s? Do we want to work toward war and victory as a means of pacification or do we want to work for justice and the road to true peace?