Question: They are talking about requiring everyone to have a microchip implanted in their bodies for identification and location. Is this the “mark of the beast” referred to in the Apocalypse, the mark without which “no one may be able to buy or sell … the number which is 666” – the mark which will designate those upon whom will be “poured out the seven bowls of the wrath of God” (xiii, xvi) ?
Answer: In theory we ought to distinguish two types of persecution, one political and carried out only for the base gain of the persecutor, the other religious and carried out for the destruction of souls. In practice the two often overlap, intentionally or not. The distinction is important, though, for it tells us something about how we may be allowed to react.
Saint John wrote the Apocalypse to console the persecuted Christians of his time with the idea that there was eternal justice – in the long run the good would be rewarded and the bad would be punished. One sign that he said would designate the bad was that they had received the “mark of the beast” on their hand or forehead. The mark was to be the number 666. A lot of biblical scholars suggest that this is the total obtained when adding up the numerical value of the letters (a=1, b=2, etc.) in the name Neron Cæsar, the emperor who put Saints Peter and Paul to death. More generally, it stood for the Roman emperors who continued to persecute the Church until Constantine. (Clever writers have also matched 666 to Luther, Lincoln, the Pope, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, (and probably Clinton, Bush, Buchanan, and Mother Theresa by now.)) Reception of the mark was only allegorical in Saint John’s time, being simply outward submission to the state religion.
But a hundred years or so after Saint John wrote the Apocalypse, serious persecution broke out again several times. When the Emperor Decius came to power in 249, he hoped to unite the Empire against the barbarians by uniting all Roman citizens in the pagan religion of the state. He had no intention of reducing the population through martyrdom, and hoped that he could just force Christians to give up the Faith. By edict everyone was supposed to appear before state officials, sacrifice to the gods, and write statements that they had done so, libelli, which when signed and sealed by the authorities would indicate that they were pagans in good standing. Among the Christians, the apostates who had actually sacrificed were known by the derogatory name “sacrificati,” and banished from Communion. Human nature being what it was, a black market developed, selling forged libelli to those unwilling to actually sacrifice. Those who bought the forgeries came to be known as “libellatici,” were also excommunincated, but, if and when they repented, were assigned penances almost as great as repentant sacrificati.[i] They had, after all accepted the “mark of the beast” – literally.
Certainly, no Christian has the right to renounce Christ, or even to appear publically to do so. That would always be sinful, even to escape death. But sometime the persecution is less obviously religious.
There is always something of an obligation to resist persecution insofar as it denies justice – the justice due to others as well as to ourselves. But there also may be good reason for bearing with moderate injustice if it is prudently foreseen that resistance will bring about greater injustice. In some cases we must bide our time untill we can regroup in “a better day.”
George Wahington once said: “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it can be a dangerous servant or a fearful master.” While it is still possible to do so by parliamentary means, it is obligatory for citizens to restrain the possible injustices which may come from allowing the “dangerous servant” to employ technology in such a way as to become our “fearful master.” If the ballot box works, we ought to be using it to keep a tight line on our“dangerous servant.” It is always better to prevent fire than to fight it later on.
Excessive interest in the business and movements of its citizens is always a mark of tyranical government. Such interest generally leads to a concerted effort to be able to identify individuals and correlate their identities with lists or profiles of the “enemies of the State.” Stories of Soviet Russia are always peppered with anecdotes about the “internal passports,” required to go anywhere or do anything. A friend who grew up in Castro’s Cuba reports that she needed currently validated papers just to buy groceries (in addition to money and ration stamps). That sort of control over “subversives” has become infinitely more powerful with modern computer and survailance technologies. Today they can track your grocey buying down to the ounce, and just “shut you off” when it looks like you might be “eating for two” – a “subversive” and yourself.
Really, all that is needed is a retinal scan, or some other unalterable biometric – but the implanted device has the advantage of carrying information itself, readable when “the computer is down,” and maybe even serving as a location transponder.
Protection against such undue inquisitiveness is supposed to be afforded to Americans by the Fourth Amendment:
But it has been a while since politicians recognized the Constitution as a limit to their powers as it was written to be – and just about as long since the electorate has cared.
Part of the problem is gradualism. We have not been rounded up and tattooed on the forehead, and we may never be, for technology makes that unnecessary. The Social Security number, the ZIP+4 code, the simple credit card account, and other such numbers may not be the “number of the beast” as such – but they each contribute to a greater possibility of abuse by those who can demand to see what corresponds to each of those numbers. Technology makes each of these numbers more useful to the persecutor, now capable of gathering information on specific individuals out of a multitude of data bases – finding out about you or me out of a universe of a Zillion bytes of information.
It may no longer be a question of preparing to refuse the mark of the beast – we may have already accepted it – at least in its early forms. Smart card and microchips are just a second generation of the ability to gather information and control people.
From a religious point of view it ought to be remembered that, even if greed is their only motive, excessively controlling governments eventually come to confront the Church and want to control or eliminate Her altogether. The regime cannot tolerate the Ten Commandments. As the guardian of the Natural Law, the Church will always be at odds with the tactics of coercion. The beatings, thefts, death threats and eugenic policies of persecutors will always be immoral – the Church must oppose them to the best of Her ability.
False religions may also be a problem to the oppressor, for even they often have an understanding of the Natural Law. Ideally, like Decius back in 249, the persecutor would like to have a single religion controlled by the state – one that would approve its policies, rally the strength of its people against its enemies, and subdue them in their dissatisfaction with the regime. Unfortunately, we have seen, time after time, that this “one world religion” is already in the works. In one of it more recent iterations:
[i] Maurice Bévenot, SJ, introdution to Saint Cyprian’s The Lapsed (New York: Newman Press, 1956 (pp. 3-4).
[ii] Portugal News, 1 November 2003, http://the-news.net/cgi/story.pl?title=F%E1tima%20to%20become%20interfaith%20shrine&edition=727