Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tied together…

I’ve been thinking recently about Turkey, Iran and Syria. But for different reasons than you think. You ever hear of an ancient king- from the century before Jesus’ birth- named Mithridates the Great? Ruler of Pontus, Enemy of Rome, Poison King…ring any bells? Don’t feel bad if you answered, “No.” But for my all-too-nerdy hobby of listening to Roman history podcasts, I wouldn’t have encountered this fascinating person myself. I even read his biography last month.

Confession: If ever I’ve earned points for “being cool”, I just forfeited them with that sentence. But since I’ve admitted the geeky truth, I’ll jump in with gusto. Because the fact is, this guy’s story is remarkable. Plus, it’s impacted Christian history in ways you might find interesting. Notice how I’m trying to hook you in?!

First, background. Mithridates ruled a kingdom on the Black Sea’s southeast coast, modern-day northeast Turkey. At certain points, he even extended his power through most of Turkey and bits of contemporary Syria and Iran. Legend states that on the night of his birth, a great comet appeared, signaling to sages (or, as they were known then, Magi) that this royal child would grow into a great king. One problem with that prediction, however, was the Mediterranean balance-of-power. Pontus- Mithridates’ eventual kingdom- sat between the vast Parthian/Persian/Iranian Empire and the menacing, aggressive Roman Republic. Thus, this infant prince should’ve expected to grow up a pawn of more powerful actors. Little people like Pontus, after all, shouldn’t expect too much.

No one convinced Mithridates of that, however, and upon assuming leadership, he took to heart the portents of his Magi and their special star…I mean, comet. He believed the Sun God- Mithras- destined him for great things, perhaps even to challenge Rome’s domination and be crowned King of Kings in his own right. As such, he gathered followers and executed many insurgency campaigns, surprising victories and miraculous turnarounds. And though he never achieved his greater goal, his personality, fervent following and general mischievousness forced the Romans to adapt their plans, overextend, even change their structure of government.

I can’t help finding parallels in this tale to stories about Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, legends of Jesus’ birth include a special comet/star and oracles from Eastern Magi. He too accepted a divine mission and was dubbed “King of Kings.” He railed against Roman abuses of power, leading a surprisingly effective insurgency against these rulers. In that he self-identified with the Hebrew God Yaweh and founded his “kingdom” on love, pursuing its creation through non-violence, obviously there are differences worth celebrating. But it’s good, I think, to remember that our Lord and Leader didn’t arise in some vacuum. He used his cultural resources to craft his own message and vision; his followers, seeking to understand his life after the fact, drew on models both contemporary and historical. Martin Luther King Jr. once claimed that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We’re all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” And the threads of that garment reach back farther than most of us likely comprehend.

Which returns me to modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iran. Many reports from that region- especially Syria and Iran- shock and dismay folk throughout the world. Brutal domination, vast injustice, nefarious leadership. It’s like bad news can’t come quick enough, while good news hides its head. I, for one, wish a ruler or leader or someone would challenge entrenched powers by coalescing people around positive goals and mutual concern. Perhaps it’s happening, and I just don’t know enough. And it’s tempting, as a foreigner, to claim, “This isn’t my concern.”

Yet there’s that ‘garment of destiny’ idea that won’t let me avert my eyes or cease my prayers. Probably a new Mithridates, with increased violence and war, shouldn’t be the answer. Certainly, Jesus’ leadership, in mostly Muslim countries, wouldn’t be a natural solution. But all people deserve, from their leaders, respect for their safety and hopes. Because, to this Christian, it seems that the unifying thread in our mutual garment is love. At least, that was Jesus’ ideal. May it be ours too.

Grace and Peace,

No comments:

Post a Comment