This column was co-authored by Bob Morrison
The nineteenth century French painting, Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer--today hangs in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. It has not lost its capacity to shock. In the Roman Circus, the small flock of Christians is huddled in the sand, kneeling around their aged pastor. We see weeping little children, whole families gathered. In the stands are tens of thousands of people, none of whose faces are visible, but they are colorfully dressed, awaiting a special entertainment. The scene is eerily lighted by flaming crosses. Looking more closely, however, we see those crosses bear Christians, covered in pitch and set aflame. Their suffering, at least, will be brief. Out of the depths beneath the Circus stride lions a single tiger. The lead lion advances menacingly toward the Believers.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, the painter, may have wanted Christians of his time to remember the sacrifices necessary to build the magnificent civilization he and his contemporaries then enjoyed. The sky in this painting is dark and threatening. It symbolizes an age in classic antiquity that was both technologically advanced—look at architecture!—and spiritually stunted.
For France in 1883, it was the Belle Epoque. That was when Paris was being rebuilt as the beautiful City of Light we know today. In that year, steamships traveled the world’s oceans and Europeans sought to bring the benefits of railroads, schools, medical clinics, and the Gospel to many lands around the world.
All of that “imperialism” is today viewed with unalloyed horror by the intelligentsia of the West. The cultured despisers of religion think that persuading Indians to give up suttee—the practice of burning living widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres is cultural imperialism. Teaching native peoples in Africa not to kill newborn twins and chase their mothers into the bush to be devoured by lions is seen as imposing an alien values system on others.