Professor J. Rufus Fears in his Great Courses CD, The Wisdom of History (2007) offers Rome as a jeremiad to Trumpism. Fears asks, “Given that it fell, how can the Roman Empire be a model for us? Pericles told us that all things human will pass away. Who doubts that we, too, will pass away? Five hundred years from now, archaeologist may probe the ruins of American cities.”
For more than 200 years, the Roman Empire was a superpower that brought peace and prosperity to the world. That accomplishment alone makes it an important model.
Some people assume that we are immune to any lessons from the Roman Empire because of our science, technology, and global economy. That theory is nonsense, as we saw in the lessons of World War I.
The Romans did not possess atomic weapons, but the Roman army itself was a formidable weapon of mass destruction. The wrath of the Romans often meant ethnic cleansing.
We have a global economy and an information superhighway, but the Roman economy was also global. Traders traveled across the empire, and there was economic unity all the way to China.
In modern times, our advanced technology does not prevent human suffering.
Fears declares a fundamental lesson of history is that human nature never changes. Since the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., thinkers have tried to understand its decline and fall. However, Rome is testimony to his lesson that empires rise and fall because of specific decisions by individual leaders. Given that human nature never changes, the same mistakes are made again and again throughout history. The Roman Empire ultimately fell because its leaders failed to solve critical foreign-policy issues in central Europe and the Middle East.
Fears points out that Rome first intervened in the Middle East in the 2nd century B.C. The Caesars tried military intervention, nation building—reconstruction on the basis of Roman political values—and occupation, but nothing brought true peace. This was because of the Roman encounters with Judea (Israel) and the Iranian Empire (Iran) that stretch through today's Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
In the 2nd century A.D., the empire still held together, although the problem of the Middle East remained. Marcus Aurelius sought to conquer Iran one more time, but his troops brought back a plague that devastated the empire, weakening its manpower for generation to come.
In the 3rd century A.D., the Parthians (Iranians) were overthrown, and a new native Persian dynasty, the Sassanid, took power. They ravaged the Roman Empire in the east, while new coalitions of Germanic tribes swept into the empire in the north.
Rome beat back these attacks on two fronts, but the empire that emerged was fundamentally changed. The army became bloated and inefficient. Taxes on the middle class were onerous. The bureaucracy became a huge, swollen fore. Above all, the sense of loyalty to Rome disappeared. Many citizens stopped supporting the empire.
In the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., German princes dwelled in the ruined palaces of the Caesars in Italy. In the east, under the banners of Islam in the 7th century, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa influences of Rome were swept away. The Roman Empire became a relic.
In his Preface Sowell sets out his proposition by stating that the views of political commentators or writers on social issues often range across a wide spectrum, but their positions on these issues are seldom random. If they are liberal, conservative, or radical on foreign policy, they are likely to be the same on crime, abortion, or education. There is usually a coherence to their beliefs, based on a particular set of underlying assumptions about the world—a certain vision of reality.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are going to go back to a question that consumed the U.S. government, in fact, led to a partial shutdown of the government last month, the question of additional physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. There already are some barriers, as you probably know, but the argument is over whether additional ones would actually make a difference or are worth the cost. As you probably also know, President Trump has made this a high priority. But we've been asking a different question. Is it moral? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among other Democrats and some activists, have laid down a very specific marker on the wall, calling it an immorality.
Last week, we heard from Shaun Casey, a theologian and former State Department official who's written widely about the intersection of faith and politics. He's currently at Georgetown University. This week, we are hearing another prominent thinker from a different perspective, the Reverend Robert Jeffress. He's pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. He's one of President Trump's closest evangelical advisors. For example, he offered prayers at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. And he is with us now on the line from his church in Dallas. Pastor Jeffress, thank you so much for talking with us once again.
ROBERT JEFFRESS: Great to be back with you, Michel.
MARTIN: So Speaker Pelosi might be the most high-profile person to make the argument that the wall is immoral, but she's not the only one. I take it you disagree.
JEFFRESS: Well, I do. And, look, I mean, to say that a wall is immoral or, as the pope said earlier this year, unchristian, I think is beyond reason. Walls are not moral or immoral in and of themselves. It depends on the purpose for which they're being used. And for government to use a barrier to protect its security and its sovereignty I believe is in keeping with what the Bible says, is the God-given purpose of government, you know? I preach the sermon on Inauguration Day for President Trump and his family. And I told the Old Testament story of Nehemiah, whom God ordered to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens. And, as an aside, I said Mr. President, God is not against walls.
MARTIN: There are other texts, though, in the Bible that bring down walls that are also quite well-known. I mean, and the holy texts of the Judeo-Christian ethic are also very clear about the need to offer welcome to the stranger, to protect the vulnerable. Is there a biblical warrant for a wall in your view?
JEFFRESS: Absolutely. And when God told the Israelites to be kind to, take care of the aliens and the foreigners in your land - but he goes on to say the reason for that. He said to Israel because you were once aliens and foreigners in Egypt. And that's the key, Michel, to understanding what the Bible is saying. Israel came to Egypt as welcomed guests, not as illegal immigrants. They were invited to come. Pharaoh invited Jacob and his family to come and settle there. And I believe America is the kindest most compassionate nation in the world to those who come into our country, legally. But there is no biblical basis for illegal immigration.
MARTIN: For those who take a different view, I don't know that it's so much a question of the wall itself is that what is the duty to people who are fleeing oppression and suffering. And that I think they consider to be the higher duty than maintaining this physical barrier to keep people out. So how do you understand that?
JEFFRESS: Well, again, I think we need to be sympathetic toward those who are fleeing oppression. I think, as a practical basis, there is probably a limit to how many people America can take. But I think government has to balance that call for compassion with the call for protection. And so I think government has to do a balancing act here. And, you know, I know somewhat of the heart of this president. I don't believe he's a mean-spirited man. I believe him to be very compassionate. I've sat in the Oval Office with him and heard him agonize over the DACA situation, wanting to help the DREAMers, in fact, wanting to do much more than the Republican establishment wanted to do.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, let's just go back again to something you referenced early, which is what do you think your role in this is. I know that you're a very strong supporter of the present. You just tweeted just a few - just a little while ago, thank God for this president. Your specific concern that you were referencing was abortion policy in this country. So I know that you're a strong supporter of him. But what do you think your role in this debate is?
JEFFRESS: I believe my job as a preacher of God's word is to speak to what God's word says about every issue, including immigration. And I think people need to understand that God has created the church for one purpose. He created the family for another. But the third institution he created was government, and government's distinct responsibility is to maintain order and protect its citizens. And I think it's wrong to vilify President Trump or any government official who's trying to fulfill that God-given and unique responsibility of government.
MARTIN: Well, but you disagree with other political leaders. I mean, there are other political leaders who you don't think are doing their job to protect the public. And, I mean, if supporting government in all of its decisions was biblical, then there wouldn't have been an American revolution, would there?
JEFFRESS: Oh, I don't support government and all of its decisions. I think, for example, New York state, Virginia - their late-term abortion bills are barbaric and ought to be opposed at every level. I think Roe v. Wade is barbaric and ought to be opposed. I don't have any trouble calling out government when they're wrong.
MARTIN: That is Dr. Robert Jeffress. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, and we reached him at his office there. Pastor Jeffress, thanks so much for talking to us.
JEFFRESS: Always good to be with you, Michel. Thank you.
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