[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on February 25, 2013.]
One of the most striking memories of my childhood is a small newsletter that carried the photograph of an emaciated elderly man. Beneath the photo was a story detailing this man’s arrest at the hands of the Russian secret police for the crime of worshiping Christ together with other believers in an “underground” church. This man’s story was the first of many stories I read about in the newsletters my parents received several times per year during the last years before the fall of the Soviet Union. I learned of believers who were dragged from their homes, thrown in concentration camps, tortured, and killed because they worshiped in underground churches, owned Bibles, shared the gospel, and pledged allegiance to an Authority higher than the Soviet state.
In the evenings, when my father called the whole family into the living room for evening devotions, sometimes he would read from one of the newsletters. We would listen to the stories and then pray together for these Christians who loved God and worshiped him even under the threat of persecution and death. I always wondered what it was that enabled these men and women to stand strong in the face of such pain and horror. What power did they possess that I did not have? What had they experienced in their relationship with God that I had not? It seemed to me that their brutally oppressive environment was in one sense a blessing—it forced them to reflect upon the value and worth of Christ. They were compelled to determine whether Christ was indeed supremely precious, even more valuable than other good things in life such as friends, family, freedom, health, and long life. And their answer was clear: intimacy with Christ is better than anything that life could give or that suffering, persecution, and death could take away. They believed—upon the backdrop of extreme risk—that they had entered into relationship with the one true and living God, that he should be worshiped supremely, and that all of life was to be lived under his reign.
The memory of these martyrs—and their worship of Christ—has remained with me since. I’ve even had opportunity to meet more than a few members of persecuted churches in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa; and these encounters likewise have left an indelible impression. For this reason, my attention was easily piqued by Peter Leithart’s recent First Things essay, “Witness unto Death,” in which he compares the declining Roman empire with the current American empire and argues that in both cases Christian suffering subverts the pretensions of worldly power. Leithart begins with examples of martyrdom in the Roman Empire and states his basic point: the Western church possesses the same basic calling as the early Roman church—we are called to follow the example of Jesus and the martyrs. Even though Constantine ended the Roman persecution of Christians, Christians today are still persecuted and martyred throughout the world (p. 46).
What can we learn from the Roman persecution? Leithart notes that governments persecute the church in order to maintain their own ordered existence. In Rome’s case, “Pax romana depended on pax deorum.” That is, religion had great political capital in Rome. Rome always intended to be the arbiter of that capital, for Rome was the arbiter of peace in the known world. And yet Christians were antithetical to that peace because they defied the Roman political structure. “Exasperated, reluctant Roman governors cajoled and threatened,” Leithart writes, “only to be answered with a defiant ‘Christianus sum’ or the declaration, ‘I wish to remain what I am’” (p. 46). Christians were witnesses to Jesus and thus citizens of an altogether different polis; this they chose to remain. As Leithart further remarks, “Christians renounced all the names that society imposed on them. They wanted to be named only by the single name of Jesus” (p. 47). Martyrdom revealed and even enhanced Christians’ distinct identity.
Leithart further notes that government persecution can have the unintended, ironic consequence of actually enhancing the cultural power of those churches, empowering those churches to offer maximally persuasive witness:
From all appearances, the Romans won over and over, each time they executed a Christian. Roman gods, not the Christian God, came away vindicated. Why were the Christians so happy, so confident that they were victors? The Christians’ heroic endurance in the arena chipped away at the Romans’ view of the world and of themselves in another way . . . Execution of criminals demonstrated that Rome was capable of suppressing all her enemies. Christians who faced their death in the arena calmly and bravely exploded this assumption . . . By their very resilience, Christians subverted Romanitas, and they subverted it in the very spectacles of the arena, the very temple of Romanitas (p. 47).
Ironically, Rome’s efforts to destroy Christianity actually vindicated it, just as their efforts to crucify Christ actually led to his resurrection power.
Leithart explores the already-not yet scope of this vindication. On the one hand Christians believed their battle represented the cosmic battle of Jesus Christ’s victory over Satan, with the Romans fitting the role of lawless men of Satan. On the other hand, Christians saw the martyrs and martyrdom as an indication of one’s faith. As Leithart says, “Martyrs imitate Christ’s own sacrifice and by imitating they share in his work” (p. 48). This work is one of witness. As Jesus witnessed to the Father, so the earliest Christians witnessed to Jesus, the Christ. Death was the earthly punctuation, but not the end, to that witness. Romanian Baptist pastor Josef Tson challenged Romanian communists with his words, “Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.” These could have been the words of the Christian martyrs to the Roman Empire.
While sociological and political explanations of the martyrs tend toward Niezsheanism–martyrdom was a veiled bid for power–Leithart observes the true reason for the martyrs: Jesus Christ. “Martyrdom speaks of Jesus, and hence the determination of the Triune God to establish his justice and peace in his world. The political power of martyrdom is the power of truth-telling, the power of the gospel itself” (p. 49). The martyrs were in death faithful witnesses to the faithful witness par excellence, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the way, the truth, and the life. Moreover, like their head, Jesus, the martyrs exemplify the transformative truth of Christianity–victory, true victory, comes through death. The fact of Christianity today bears witness to this, for as Leithart asks, “how can you kill a movement whose members believe that their death in union with Jesus is the salvation of the world?” (p. 49).
Though Christianity stands today, Leithart reminds us that our age is just as skeptical of martyrs as the Romans were. Our age, moreover, tempts us with the subtle lie that the values of liberal modernity are the values of the Christian faith (see p. 49). But Christian values and liberal (Western) values are not the same, and if the Church will remain a faithful witness “she must learn to discern and act on the difference” (p. 49). What are some examples of faithful witness in our current American context? Leithart mentions medical professionals and insurance brokers who are willing to resist the abortion regime even at the cost of prestigious jobs and lucrative compensation. He further mentions pastors who are willing to call sin “sin” regardless of the legal threats that will surely ensue. “The church,” writes Leithart, “is most politically potent not when she has a place in the halls of power, but when she shares the testimony of Jesus regardless of the consequences” (p. 50). For the church bears witness to the world and its principalities and powers (cf. Eph. 3:10), speaking truth to power like Jesus did to Pilate because his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).