Should We Find ‘Christian’ Pretexts for Joining the Persecutors of the Church?
I know, the answer to this one sounds easy. (Likewise my last hypothetical, “How Many Anti-Semites Should Speak at Your Christian Conference?”) In theory it is, but in fact many Christians over the centuries have by their actions answered this question, “Absolutely! Where do I sign up? Can I sign up twice, just to be on the safe side?”
There are solid reasons why this happened. Not good ones, but solid ones grounded in self-preservation, cowardice, eagerness to follow the crowd, and crass social snobbery. A large percentage of people, I am reliably informed, are “joiners.” They look around at what the people around them are doing for signals how they should act, talk, even think. History proves this.
I find this phenomenon … bizarre. When I see a mob of people rushing in one direction, some inborn instinct suggests to me: “Oh look, that must be the Gadarene swine, rushing off a cliff!” So I run in the other direction. Day to day, I struggle even to pretend to care what anybody thinks of me who isn’t a) an old, close friend, b) my beloved, or c) the person who signs my paycheck. I think I might be missing a chromosome or something.
But most people over the centuries have indeed behaved as herds, and whether they drowned in the sea or went to the Promised Land depended on who was leading them. On whom they chose to follow.
With that established, let’s look at a series of historical examples of Christians taking a countercultural stand, and the heat they took for doing that. And let’s try to imagine how we might have reacted, if we were standing around in our togas looking on.
When Christians Rescued Abandoned Infants from the Walls of Rome
It’s a solid fact that Christians in Rome agreed with the Jews that the Roman practice of infanticide was evil. Romans who had unwanted or imperfect kids would take them to the city walls and leave them to the elements. They left these squalling babies, telling themselves that they weren’t killing them; the gods or some stranger might save them — as Romulus and Remus were saved by a wolf. (Rationalization isn’t a modern mental habit, we can see.)
Christians would make a practice of going to Rome’s walls, rescuing these babies, and raising them as their own. Pagan onlookers were puzzled by these rescues, and sneered. To them, this was “dumpster diving,” and surely must be driven by dark, suspicious motives. Perhaps the Christians wanted to raise the babies as slaves, or pimp them out in brothels. Maybe they were secretly eating the children — since didn’t rumor tell that the Christian liturgy entailed ritual cannibalism?
Let’s say you were an ordinary Roman, a quiet Christian. You hadn’t joined the ranks of baby rescuers yourself, but assumed they were sincere. Then you heard your posh pagan neighbors, maybe your boss, spreading rumors that the “rescuers” were actually human traffickers, or worse. Should you agree? Should you accept and repeat the pagan story explaining away these rescues as the actions of greedy slavers or ghouls? Should you at least keep silent, to stay out of trouble?
When Christians Died Rather than Worship Caesar
As the Roman empire staggered from crisis to crisis, its rulers abandoned the fig leaf that Augustus had put in place, which treated the emperor as simply “first citizen.” Instead, these emperors strove to increase their prestige, cling to their throne, and compel their subjects’ obedience. They started dressing, acting, and demanding to be treated, as god-like transcendent beings. In fact, they began insisting that citizens worship them as living gods — by muttering a prayer and burning incense in front of the emperor’s statue.
Most Romans shrugged and agreed. They had so many gods, why quibble at a new one? Worshiping the emperor was a simple act of patriotism on behalf of their troubled country, and anyone who refused was therefore an enemy of the people.
Faithful Christians by the tens of thousands refused, and were killed in hideous ways before cheering crowds of pagans. Wild beasts devoured Christian men, women, and children, to the roar of the mob. These fans considered the victims criminals, blasphemers, members of a secretive foreign cult that wished to undermine the Empire.
Would you have agreed with them? Would you have looked for false motives among the martyrs? Maybe suggest that they were grandstanding, self-righteous, and unwilling to dialog? Should you burn a pinch of incense in front of Caesar’s statue, rather than risk alienating people from Jesus by taking a “moralistic” stand?
When Christians Fought to End the Slave Trade
In early 19th century Britain, devout Methodist William Wilberforce and a small group of supporters set out to reform the British empire. They sought to replace the tepid, Enlightenment-diluted faith that lingered in England with something fiery and apostolic. They wished to address a long list of social evils, from wife-beating to cruel sports that tortured animals, but they put their central focus on one obvious evil: slavery, and the slave trade that fed it. (For the whole story, see Eric Metaxas’ marvelous book Amazing Grace.)
They faced enormous, powerful, and well-funded opposition. The richest men in England were invested in the highly profitable sugar colonies of the Caribbean, where every year thousands of slaves were worked to death, and replaced with new arrivals kidnapped from Africa. Millions of ordinary Britons derived some of their income from slave-based industries, and everybody who drank tea (i.e., everybody) benefited from the cheap sugar made by slaves.
When Wilberforce and his allies sought to commence the end of slavery, beginning with the slave trade, they weren’t greeted as heroes. They were roasted in the papers owned by slave-trading elites as traitors who wished to aid their nation’s enemies; as corrupt puppets of the rival (non-slave) sugar planters of Asia; as self-righteous zealots who wished to impose their private morality on their neighbors. Even clergymen linked to the slave trade tried to get Methodist missionaries banned from the colonies, lest they “stir up” the slaves.
If you had been alive in London in 1815, would you have spoken up for Wilberforce, despite the heat he was taking? Would you have joined one of his renegade Methodist congregations? Or would you have taken the “reasonable” course of supporting Britain’s interests, her established pro-slavery clergy, and waving off as crazy radicals the trouble-making abolitionists?
When Christians Speak Out Against Abortion, the LGBTQMYNAMEISLEGION Juggernaut, and Medical Tyranny
Think about those historical precedents. It’s always absurdly easy to find rationalizations for siding with the World against the Church. It always feels safer to bow before Caesar, and make friends with Mammon.
It was easy for German Christians in the 1930s to focus on the evils of Communism, the virtue of patriotism, and the decadence of Weimar, so they didn’t have to speak out against the Nazis.
And it’s easy today to pretend that Christian compassion demands we bow before today’s fashionable idols, from legal abortion to transgender madness, from fascist lockdowns and censorship to mandates for abortion-tainted vaccines. It’s oh so tempting to claim that pro-lifers, pro-family activists, and other dissidents are “judgmental Pharisees.” O Lord, I thank you that I am not like these extremists … .
But at some point you have to take sides. Which side are you really on? The answer will be made unspeakably clear by Christ when you come before Him for judgment.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”