Dodge: Religious Freedom
In AD 177, a severe persecution came upon the Christians of Lyons and Vienne in modern-day France. Although they had enjoyed three years of relative peace under the new Roman Emperor Marcus Arelius, the local Governor started torturing Christians as a way of entertaining his subjects. Sanctus, a deacon of Vienne, for example, had red-hot plates applied to his body. Pothinus, a 92-year-old Bishop, died after being tortured. Neither recanted his faith.
But even the hostile crowds were shocked when Blandina, a young servant girl was led to the amphitheater after being tortured for an entire day. Impaled on a stake and exposed to ferocious beasts, Blandina somehow survived and became a beacon of hope for the Christians of Lyons. Eventually, the Roman authorities angrily killed her by throwing her limp body to a ravenous bull.
We thankfully live in a country that finds such practices barbaric. No matter what pressure comes on American Christians, it hardly compares to what believers in the early Church had to endure. The First Amendment recognizes the right of all Americans to the free exercise of religion.
The key word here is exercise. As Americans, we are given the privilege of living out our faith openly. We can (and should) bring Christian ideas into the workplace, the public square and our schools. The Christian faith is not meant to be exercised by private piety alone. After all, Jesus’ parting words in Matthew’s Gospel are to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28.19).
Yet some live in fear that our freedoms are being eaten away. This is a reasonable concern since religious freedoms have been eroded in other countries, generally with the laudable goal of promoting greater tolerance. But, as Euripides pointed out long ago, “When one with honeyed words but evil mind persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.” We should never take our freedoms for granted.
Yet, perhaps we need to find a revised language for how we exercise our freedoms. The execution of an endless set of culture wars, which change few hearts, seems counterproductive. Instead, maybe we should exercise our faith by a commitment to serving others. As Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10.43).
This was also Pope Francis’ point during his recent visit. The Pope downplayed divisiveness and celebrated service. As he put it, “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining its teachings,’ is dangerously unbalanced.”
When Jesus came into the world, he came as a servant, prepared to bear injustice for others. As Isaiah wrote, “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53.7).
We should be wary of inviting persecution, grief and martyrdom. We should always work instead for love, justice and peace. Yet, as Jesus taught, both in word and deed, greatness comes in bearing the sufferings of others. We best exercise our faith publically by service to those who don’t particularly like us and could never repay us.