Forty-nine people were killed in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, this morning. Twenty more were seriously wounded.
Four people, including three men and one woman, have been taken into custody. One man in his late twenties has been charged with murder. He reportedly posted a white-nationalist manifesto on Twitter.
This tragedy was the largest massacre in New Zealand history. It reminds us that Satan “comes to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). God is weeping with those who weep today and calls us to join him (Romans 12:15).
In other news, Israeli warplanes struck some one hundred Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight, responding to a rocket attack on the Israeli metropolis of Tel Aviv. The fighting broke out as Egyptian mediators were in Gaza working to broker an expanded cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
In a world filled with violence and chaos, we can learn a redemptive lesson from an unlikely source.
“The Ides of March are come”
Today is known as the “Ides of March.” In the Roman world, the “Ides” was the midpoint of their months. The date we know as March 15 was marked by several religious ceremonies and was a Roman deadline for settling debts.
This day is especially known to history as the day Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The back story is remarkable.
According to the Roman biographer Plutarch (died AD 119), “A certain seer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: ‘Well, the Ides of March are come,’ and the seer said to him softly: ‘Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.’”
Later that day, Caesar was stabbed to death by as many as sixty conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius.
Most people know the story of his death. But why was Caesar murdered on this day?
And why is his death relevant to our broken world today?
An assassination and stray cats
The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC. Governed by leaders elected by the people, their representative model influenced the founders of the American republic. Over time, however, the aristocratic leaders of the Republic became less focused on the people and more concerned for their own power and agendas.
Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) rose to power as an accomplished military conqueror. With chaos in Rome, Caesar led his army south across the Rubicon, the northern barrier of Italy, on January 10, 49 BC. By 45 BC, he had become the sole dictator of Rome.
Brutus, Cassius, and the senators who conspired to execute Caesar claimed they were liberating the people from dictatorship. He was killed in a place known as Pompey’s Theater.
The area fell into ruins over the centuries and is currently fenced off from the public and occupied by stray cats. However, the mayor of Rome announced last week that the site will undergo renovation and be opened to the public in 2021.
“We are all slaves of the laws”
What can we learn from the Ides of March?
Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny is a new history of the fall of the Roman Republic. Its author, Edward J. Watts, earned his PhD in history from Yale and has received numerous awards for his research and writing.
He notes that “the men who led the Republic in the third century [before Christ] also understood that their personal achievements had meaning only when they served the larger goals of Roman policy.” There was “a shared understanding that the Republic was a political system subject to no one but the community as a whole.”
To illustrate, Watts cites the famous statement by Cicero: “We are all slaves of the laws so that we might be free.”
Over time, however, Roman political life devolved into “a struggle among individuals seeking honor and power through the complete control of the city and the resources of the empire.” Eventually, Romans would have “a new sort of liberty . . . Freedom from fear, freedom from famine, and freedom from danger now all came from [Emperor] Augustus and Augustus alone.”
When churches and Christians plateau
When the Roman Republic became a means to the end of personal advancement for its leaders, its decline began. The same can happen to us.
When churches are started, they must focus on evangelism and ministry to their communities in order to grow. After a few years, many have gained so many members that some begin focusing on what the church can do for them.
Parents want better programs for their children; adults want programming focused on their needs. The church stops focusing externally on those it is called to reach and starts focusing internally on itself. And it plateaus and often declines.
The same can happen to individual Christians when we focus more on what Jesus can do for us than what we can do for him. We come to church and to God for what we can receive. And we stop fulfilling the Commission to which we are called.
How to experience the joy of Jesus
The good news is that what happened to Rome doesn’t have to happen to us. Churches can renew their commitment to serve the community they are commissioned to reach. Christians can renew our commitment to the One who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).
Every day, we must decide whether we will live for Jesus or for ourselves (Romans 12:1–2). The tragedies that fill each day’s news show us that this decision is urgent for us and for the broken world we are called to serve.
Here’s the paradox: when we serve God and others, we find a greater significance than we can ever experience by serving ourselves. The disciples received power from the Spirit so they could be witnesses for our Lord (Acts 1:8). When we share the joy of Jesus, we experience the joy of Jesus. When we bless others, we are blessed.
In terms of the Ides of March, we can be an Empire or we can be a Republic, but we cannot be both.
Which do you choose today?