The 313 Syndrome

By John Graz

Constantine issued the Edict of Milan.  The Edict of Milan ws a letter signed by emperors Constantine I and Licinius that proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire.  The letter was issued in AD 313, shortly after the conclusion of the Diocletianic Persecution.It is said that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

I can think of no better example of this than what I call the 313 syndrome. 

For those who are unfamiliar, the year 313 is one of the most important moments in the history of human rights and religious freedom.  This year the date is especially significant, as 2013 marks the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan.

All of us who still believe passionately in human dignity and individual rights would do well to remember this Edict that truly changed the course of the western world’s history. Its implementation put an end to the persecution of Christians and restored the Church properties. Not only did the Edict of Milan ensure that Christians be tolerated; it resulted in Christians actually being treated as well as all other Roman citizens. 

Even a cursory glance at headlines from around the world today reveals a number of countries falling into the hands of religious fanatics.  Where great progress once had been made, religious minorities in a number of cases are again being terrorized by those who seek to oppress.  It is so extreme at times that we are seeing people sentenced to death for the “crime” of changing their religion, or even offering mild criticism.  1700 years later, have we learned nothing from history?  Where is the Edict of Milan when we really need it?
Continuing our history lesson … in 380, the Edict of Thessalonica destroyed the great Edict of Milan. Christianity became the religion of the state. The hope of religious freedom for all – made possible by the previous Edict -- vanished. Was it inevitable? Was the Edict of Milan doomed to fail from the start because it was “ahead of its time”?

On this 1700th anniversary of 313 I find myself pondering whether there really is a syndrome that inherently makes religious freedom a cyclical situation.  Is our natural state one in which oppression is the norm, only to be occasionally interrupted for short periods (historically speaking) of tolerance?

I wonder whether the majority of the inhabitants of Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia would vote today for an equivalent of the Edict of Milan? Don’t be so sure that the answer is yes! Having defended religious freedom all my life, I am often surprised by the lack of enthusiasm among some believers, including the members of religious minorities, who themselves have at times been oppressed.

All of this leads me to additional pondering.  I wonder whether the world’s citizens see religious freedom as a privilege?  Or as an essential human right?

If the former case, then perhaps that explains much of the complacency we see around the world.  But if the latter, people must take care not to think of this issue as one to be addressed through violence, or a spirit of revenge.  Yes, a desire for vengeance may be a natural human emotion, but it makes impossible an equitable, just society.  History has shown that “an eye for an eye” is the wrong way to go about establishing peaceful, respectful co-existence.

Religious freedom is not about the weak of today becoming strong and exacting their revenge tomorrow. 

Let us remember that 313 was much more significant than simply as a bridge to what happened in 380, when Christianity became the only state religion, when the spirit of revenge overcame the spirit of freedom.

It is vital to learn the right lessons from history, so that we do not repeat the wrong ones.