Christian ethics isn’t about becoming a “real” man – it’s about getting yourself killed

I have recently revisited St Boniface, about whom I’ve written before, as a potential model for church leadership today — leading the disciplined monastic life and making disciples. And as I write my new Thing About Boniface, I see lovely words spilling forth from my fingertips about how the disciplined life, combined with articulate presentations of the Gospel, may make disciples.

Or …

It may get us killed.

Like St Boniface.

This is an important aspect of the Christian walk we do not consider much in our society. In Wild at Heart, Eldredge has a passage where he talks about how he told his son in grade one to get up and punch a bully back. And then he explained that our usual way of reading “turn the other cheek” ends up making passive men who run away.

He may be right, but his response is possibly wrong, too.

I think the scary, daring part of this teaching from Our Lord is that it’s an act of defiance. You stand back up and say, “Hit me again.” Non-violence is not about running away. It is not about being passive. It’s about literally turning the other cheek, saying to the perpetrator, “What about this cheek?”

These are big words on my part. I avoid conflict of most kinds. Nonetheless, I wonder what would happen if more of us truly took non-violence to heart and resisted evil by suffering.

Maybe we’d make more disciples.

Maybe we’d get killed.

But what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

Martyrdom

I have recently taken over as administrator of Read the Fathers. It’s not too late to join! It’s never too late to join, but it’s pretty easy just now. We started on December 1, and everything we’ve been reading has been short so far. Check us out! It’s only seven years of your life. 😉

This means a lot of my blogging energy is going there instead of here at the moment, such as my latest post, a bit of an introductory creature about martyrdom. I hope you enjoy it! Join the discussion. Join our reading group!

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

Politics and religion

Somehow, it seems like we live in a volatile, politicised age. Most of the people on my Twitter feed are academics, yet alongside nerdiness there is a lot of social commentary. My Facebook feed, with a more diverse cast, is similar. The rise to stardom of Jordan Peterson is tied up with hot-button political and social issues. Some days it feels like you can’t breathe without hearing about the follies of Donald Trump or the woes of Brexit or whatever new idea Doug Ford has come up with.

And everyone is digging their heels in. Everything is a zero-sum game. There is no higher ground, only winning. And if the ‘other side’ ever ‘wins’, that’s the end of the world or civilisation or whatever as we know it.

What is a Christian to do in the age of hyperbole?

First, political and social issues can’t take the place of true religion in our hearts. Yes, politics is a way to solve certain problems, but Donald Trump is neither saviour nor Satan.

Christianity has had a varying relationship with the powers of this world. Jesus was crucified by Romans after being handed over to death by the leaders of his own nation. Variously for the next two hundred or so years, Christians were sometimes persecuted and usually ignored. They were legally protected in the latter half of the third century to have that later stripped away in the final and Great Persecution in the early 300s under Diocletian.

And then, with Constantine throwing his lot in with the Christian god in 312, things started changing yet again. Not that the relationship Christian emperors was always rosy — consider the torture of Pope Liberius at the hands of Constantius, the multiple exiles of Athanasius, the judicial execution of Priscillian for heresy. Julian had a relatively mild repression of Christians, and then under Theodosius I Christianity started to really become the state religion. Meanwhile, because of its association with Roman Emperors, followers of Christianity in Persia were at times persecuted.

Becoming a state religion was not necessarily good for Christianity. David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox philosopher, thinks it was a bad thing. The story goes on, a story of Christian kings and governments, of collusion with secular powers, of being manipulated by them, of using them to repress religious opponents, of being repressed by them. Wherever there are Christians, they have some sort of relationship with government, whether persecuted under Communism and certain Islamic regimes or wielding great power under certain western regimes — but usually somewhere in between.

And we should not fear working within government, acknowledging that it is a means of working out certain aspects of discipleship — caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan (which is what true religion is about). Working with government can make for a more just society.

But that will never, ever, be perfect this side of eternity.

This means that we should keep calm and carry on, rather than freak out and throw our entire lot in with any of the demagogues or political parties and demonise our opponents.

We should love our political opponents. We should love them lavishly. And when our preferred parties fail to promote justice, or even promote injustice, we should pray for them, we should maybe even engage in normal political practices, like writing letters to MPs. But we shouldn’t get all apocalyptic or throw our hands up in despair.

It will never be perfect, because only God is perfect.

Politics isn’t religion. We shouldn’t treat it that way. Trump is (probably) not the Antichrist. Neither is Brexit the Apocalypse.

The Martyrdom of Marriage

Thomas Becket martyred, roundel at Exeter Cathedral (my photo)

When writing about Jordan Peterson and marriage as a case example of how Christians should have a different approach to life from the world, I made reference to an excellent article by Fr John Behr, ‘From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human‘, in the current issue of The Wheel. In this article, where Fr John discusses the basis of biblical anthropology and what maleness and femaleness have to do with this, he talks about the martyrdom of marriage, as well as the martyrdom of parenthood.

Here is a way of viewing marriage most of us are unused to.

Martyrdom was long regarded in the Christian tradition as the highest expression of faithfulness to Christ. From St Stephen to St Polycarp, St Perpetua, St Cyprian, St Alban, the martyrs were seen as the pinnacle of Christian devotion. Second only were the confessors, those imprisoned but not killed for the faith. Martyrs had a guarantee of heavenly glory, even those as yet unbaptised (these communities believed in baptismal regeneration, remember).

The lapsed, who buckled and gave in, were a problem. Could their post-persecution penitence avail them anything? The traditores, who handed over church property, were even worse. Traitors.

Martyrdom helped shape the church’s image and strength as a community (an unintended consequence).

When martyrdom went away, the monks became living martyrs. They abandoned all to gain everything. They moved to the desert. They suffered to come near to Christ.

The martyr dies on behalf of something bigger than him/herself. The martyr suffers out of love of something better than this present darkness. The martyr is (literally) a witness to the glory of Christ.

In marriage, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Christ died for the church. Wives are called (controversially) to submit to and respect their husbands.

Marriage is a living death.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

That’s going a bit far, isn’t it?

Speaking as a happily married man with close to eleven years experience, I don’t know that it is. In marriage, I must die. Or rather, ego must die. As a husband, I must love my wife. Love her the way Christ loves the church. Jesus abandoned everything for His bride. He who knew no sin became sin for His bride. He who had the form of God took on the form of a slave for His bride. He who was immortal died for His bride. He who made flesh took on flesh for His bride.

Jesus Christ was whipped, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross.

Out of love for His bride.

Marriage becomes a high calling, doesn’t it?

Out of love for God, I have to love my wife enormously. I have to die to myself for her. Every. Single. Day. What is best for her? What would make her happy? What would make her life easier? Can I care for our son in the morning so she can get some more sleep? (Yes.) Can I bathe him so she can have a break? (Yes.) Can I do some dishes? (Yes.) Can I watch chick flicks? (Yes.) Can I forego Star Trek to give her the quality time she needs? (I mean, I guess so.) Can I do our taxes on time? (Maybe. I mean: Yes.) Can I wash, hang up, and put away laundry? (Yes, but sometimes I forget step 3.)

Bachelor MJH would do dishes only when absolutely necessary. He would stay up late. He would eat too much ice cream. Drink too much beer. Vacuum only occasionally. Watch Star Trek every night. Avoid chick flicks. Marriage is a means of grace that can strip away this ego-centred life.

Instead, I put my wife before myself.

And, of course, two human persons living together are not exactly a binitarian model of the Trinity. Seeking to work out differences and difficulties with love, with humility, with patience. This is also a good place for ego to come and die, and for Christ to come and reign.

Marriage is a living death, but it is a good way to die.

And hopefully, by living this way, my marriage can witness to Christ. Like a martyr.

St George the Martyr

The icon of St George in my wallet

I don’t have time now to hunt down Hippolyte Delahaye’s book about Greek warrior saints, so I cannot confirm whether St George was real or not. However, I have already posted a dragon-free version of his life, if that interests you. The main feature of the life of St George is not, as it turns out, slaying a dragon, as much as I would like that to be the case. Rather, it is his martyrdom.

He is visually identifiable by his dragon-slaying, of course. But what I noticed looking at icons of this very popular saint in Cyprus was the fact that many of them have the sequence of his life and martyrdom around the edges of the dragon-slaying. According to tradition, St George was tortured and martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in the last persecution by the Romans.

This is how we should remember him.

St George’s Day, then, is not about the heroism of defeating evil in battle with the weapons of this world. It is about the heroism of defeating evil by standing firm in the hope set before you with the weapons of love, faith, and loyalty to Christ the King.

It is about martyrdom.

The Diocletianic Persecution gained the reputation of being both the last and the greatest persecution. After a period of relative tolerance, Diocletian had a change of heart and determined to persecute the Christians of the Roman Empire starting in 303. This persecution was carried out most effectively in the eastern half where Diocletian had supreme rule, destroying scriptures, dismantling or seizing church property, killing and imprisoning Christian leaders and Christian civil servants.

Eusebius of Caesarea believed that this persecution came upon the church because they had become too lax, too lazy, too worldly. The church had been left alone for some time. Christians were bureaucrats. Bishops could live like anyone else. They had started building big churches (like the one across from Diocletian’s palace in Nicomedia) instead of living holy lives.

The persecution was less severe in the West, particularly in the portion given to Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine, who thus manages to acquire for himself an image of being a crypto- or even open Christian in some later traditions.

It officially ended in 311, although I do not think its ferocity continued after Diocletian’s retirement in 305 and the series of civil wars that followed, 306-312.

St George was one of the victims of this persecution, a soldier torn between his duty to God and the commands of his emperor.

We face nothing so great or so large today in the West, despite what the alarmists will tell you.

Will we stand up for Jesus?

My button of St George slaying the dragon

Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

Saints of the Week: Acindynus, Pegasius, Aphthonius, Elpidophorus and Anempodistus of Persia

Here they are in a very Byzantine icon.

Today on All Saints Day, I bring back the saint of the week. And this week, you get five-for-one! These five saints are martyrs commemorated on 2 November in the Orthodox Church. I am uncertain whether they are remembered by the Miaphysite communions and the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East, but I expect they are, given the year and location of their martyrdom.

The typical version of church history we all know and love paints a fairly grim picture of life before Constantine (which wasn’t as bad as you’d think) and then transpires the Peace of the Church. Persecution is over! Churches can be built publicly — even at public expense! Bishops can live in the open — with tax exemptions! And so on and so forth.

There is a debate as to whether the Peace of the Church was a good thing or not.

But you know whom it did not necessarily profit?

Christians outside the Roman Empire.

Christians within the Empire became a protected species. And the Roman Emperor came to see himself as the great patron of all Christians, whether they were his subjects or not. At times, this meant telling the Persian Emperor what to do, which was not the sort of thing that went down well with Persian Emperors — particularly Shapur II ‘the Great’, the longest-reigning Sassanian monarch (r. 309-379).

It also meant that when hostilities between the two Empires ramped up (a frequent occurance), Christians in Persian lands could become targets of the Sassanian monarchy — seen as foreign sympathisers. Christians often felt safer within Roman territory; thus, when the city of Nisibis fell to the Persian army in 363, St Ephraim the Syrian and a group of Syriac-speaking ecclesiastics moved the School of Nisibis to the city of Edessa in Roman territory.

During Shapur’s golden era, the Christians of Persia encountered persecution just as their siblings of Roman lands had in years past. For the most part, it seems that Shapur’s targets were high-level ecclesiastics such as Shemon Bar Shabbae or Bishop Acepsimas of Hnaita.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about Persian Christianity in Late Antiquity or the sources for Byzantine hagiography to corroborate the story of the five martyrs for this week, so what I’m telling you about the events of 376 should be taken with caution — I take it from abbamoses.com. In fact, I’ll just reproduce it here for you:

Acindynus, Pegasius and Anempodistus were courtiers to King Shapur II of Persia. When the king began a fierce persecution of Christians, the three withdrew from court to a private house and, fearless of their own safety, openly exhorted their fellow-Christians to stand firm in their faith. For this they were arrested and brought before their former lord, who subjected them to many cruel tortures, from which they emerged miraculously unscathed. Seeing this, one of the king’s soldiers, named Aphthonius, embraced the Faith and was immediately beheaded. The former courtiers were then put to further tortures, but their only effect was to convince Elpidophorus, a distinguished nobleman, and seven thousand other Persians to faith in Christ. All were beheaded, but not before receiving holy Baptism. The trials of the three continued, but once again they were preserved, and even the king’s mother was led to the true faith. Finally they were killed (the account does not say how), receiving the crown of martyrdom along with the king’s mother and twenty-eight others.

This could likely be true. It’s at least the same sort of story as we find about martyrs under the Romans. Again, I have no knowledge of the sources for this quintet of martyrs so cannot say one way or the other. The Persian persecutions serve to remind us of the wider world of Christianity, not just today, but throughout all generations. It is common to remind people that Christianity was not born in Europe — it is also worth keeping in mind that the missions and growth of the Church in the Patristic period did not restrict themselves to the Roman Empire.

They also remind us that Christians in the lands of the former Persian Empire face persecution to this day, whether from the likes of ISIS or the legitimised government of Iran.