Martyrdom Then and Now

There is an old question that goes: “If the authorities were looking for Christians to martyr, would there be sufficient evidence to convict you?” Another way of putting this question might be: “Would anyone consider your particular sort of Christian faith the sort that would make it worth persecuting?”

It is sometimes claimed that “Christian martyrs” were not executed because of their Christian faith, but for some other reason, and thus the question arises as to whether we should claim them as Christian martyrs. So, for example, to take a contemporary example, if Edith Stein was executed because she was Jewish, not because she was Christian, should we call her a “Christian” martyr? Similarly, if in the early Church, Christians were executed not because of their religious convictions – towards which, it’s often claimed, the Romans were “indifferent” – but because of a perceived political threat to the Roman Empire, should we call them martyrs for their Christian faith? Or should we merely describe them as “troublesome” Roman citizens?

It’s true that the Romans were not especially interested in what god or gods you worshiped, unlike the Hellenistic empires that preceded them. One of those Hellenistic emperors, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 215 BC – 164 BC) became notorious, for example, for forcing the Jews in Judea to eat pork and to worship a statue of Zeus that he had placed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The result was a revolution led by Judas Maccabeus and his sons, which we call the Maccabean Revolt. With the Romans, by contrast, you could pretty much do what you wanted when it came to your personal, private worship.

But the Romans were not entirely indifferent to religious beliefs either. For various and sundry reasons related to Roman expansion into the East and the centralization of Roman power in a single emperor, “emperor worship” became the rule among many Roman administrations by the late second century. And any religion, such as that of the Jews and the Christians, that did not permit its adherents to acknowledge the emperor as a god, as the highest authority in all matters, was a distinct problem in Rome’s view.

A “faith” that remained in the church or temple and did not hamper political rulers, in any appreciable way, was not a problem. But anyone who tried to teach truths that would disturb the rulers’ plans or convince people to conscientiously object about them was not going to be safe from persecution for long. Churches or temples that were engaged in “worship” in the manner the pagan temples in Rome were – that is, if they engaged in elaborate rituals and sacrifices, but did not teach much or anything in the way of doctrine or morals – these had very little to fear from the Roman authorities.

"Eleven Nuns of Nowogrodek" by Adam Styka, 1948
“Eleven Nuns of Nowogrodek” by Adam Styka, 1948

So, too, today, as it has often been throughout history, as long as all you seek is “freedom of worship,” you don’t have much to fear from most governments. You can do whatever elaborate rituals you want inside the walls of your private temple or church. It’s when what you do starts to spill out into the public square, like a fountain of water overflowing its basin, that the overlords get concerned. As long as one’s “religion” is purely otherworldly, most people don’t care whether you worship Zeus or Yahweh or the god of balloon animals.

Modern newspapers that speak out against the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and exhort the government to keep firm the “wall of separation between church and state” have no trouble publishing daily horoscopes, even though belief in astrology is a distinct religious belief, because they know what we all sense: namely, that people who read horoscopes and even those who take them seriously pose no threat at all to the government. Horoscopes have no moral content, which is why they can’t possibly be a threat to anyone in power, no matter how evil. This is also why rarely does anyone ever get persecuted for engaging in astrology. It’s considered “safe.” It’s harmless foolishness.

A religion that says that all laws and executive actions of the government must be judged against a higher standard or authority; that any laws found wanting in this regard are to be resisted; and that “faithful citizenship” is to be judged precisely by one’s resisting the government in this way, now that is dangerous. Such religions rarely escape persecution for long.

So the debate over “martyrdom” in the early Church and over “freedom of religion” in our own day are not unrelated, as it turns out. If by “martyr” you mean someone executed specifically for worshiping in a certain way, not so many early Christians were “martyred” for that reason alone. If by “martyr,” however, you mean someone executed for refusing to recognize the emperor or the Roman governors as the highest authority over human affairs, there were plenty of them.

Southern officials didn’t harass Martin Luther King because as a Baptist, he didn’t do infant baptisms. With regard to religious practice, he could do as he wished. They put him in jail because his Gospel message of freedom was spilling out into the streets in the form of protests against the Jim Crow laws of the south.

It’s an odd fact in our own day that so many who would like to associate themselves with the civil rights legacy are so eager to slam shut that same door between the Church pews and the public square. They are like St. Perpetua’s father who advised her as she awaited execution to refuse Christ publically in words; no one would care what she did in private. Hers was a culture, like ours, that knew only a certain kind of tolerance. But hers was a spirit like Christ’s, which knew a truer freedom than the kind that can be given or taken by secular overlords.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.