The Persecution of the First Christians: Follow the Money

Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you?  (James 2:6-7)

One aspect of the persecution of the early Christians that is sometimes overlooked is that very early on in Church history it was economic complaint and concerns that led to Christians being persecuted.  The opponents of Christianity did not always directly attack the faith of the Christians, nor even acknowledge that the Christian had a unique faith.  Sometimes persecution arose because people saw the Christians as threatening their livelihood.   We can look at two examples from the Acts of the Apostles.  First, in Acts 16:16-30 we read the following (emphases not in the original text):

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

It is realizing their loss of potential income that causes the owners of the slave to have Paul and Silas apprehended, then beaten and imprisoned.  What enrages them against Paul and Silas is their loss of income, not the faith of the apostles.  Note they do not really bring any religious charge against the apostles, nor do they mention their Christian faith.  The charge against Paul and Silas is 1) they are Jews (they never mention Christ in their accusation) and 2) they advocate customs which are not lawful for Roman citizens.  It is those two charges that inflame the crowd to also attack Paul and Silas.  So they are attacked, not because they are followers of Christ nor for proclaiming the Gospel but because they follow some ethics which threaten the financial well being of the slave owners.

Second, we find another such persecution of the apostles in Acts 19:23-39.  In Ephesus it again is going to be people who feel their income is threatened by the teachings of Paul that result in the Apostle being persecuted.  This time there is some concern that what Paul is teaching seems to oppose the religious beliefs of the local residents.  However, the main concern is the artisans might lose income if people begin to listen to Paul.  But again in this account the Apostle is not going to be accused of being a Christian, but it is going to be the mention of Judaism which causes an uproar.

About that time there arose no little stir concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may count for nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged, and cried out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion; and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. Paul wished to go in among the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; some of the Asiarchs also, who were friends of his, sent to him and begged him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.

Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, wishing to make a defense to the people. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all with one voice cried out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be contradicted, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against any one, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly.

In the above account they don’t accuse the apostles of being Christians, and in fact the ‘town clerk’ defends Paul and his Christian companions saying they “are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers.”  He knows of no charge against the Apostles that they have in any way dissed the great goddess of Ephesus. The town clerk seems to recognize the complaint isn’t about religion, but about money.  He advises the crowd to take their complaint to court or to the proconsuls who are the proper authorities for dealing with economic disagreements.   In the polytheistic Roman Empire, religious tolerance was the norm which allowed people to function together as an empire.   What could not be tolerated was a threat to the economic interest of groups.

As is often the case in the world, one can follow the money to discover what is happening in the world of the early Church.  People at first seem to have seen the Christians as an economic threat to their way of life.  For the most part, they probably could care less what the Christians believed as long as their faith had no economic impact on society.  But as soon as Christianity’s presence could be felt at the level of the purse strings of businessmen, business took notice of this faith and began to oppose it.  It wasn’t the faith as such they opposed, but that the faith of these people might touch their livelihood.  Here we see that sacred and secular interest are intertwined on many levels, and the lives of people are enmeshed in ways that do not allow a perfect separation of church and state.  So too today in America it is often economic interests that determine what religious beliefs will be tolerated.

Perseverance and Persecution

“’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Mt. 5.10-11). In saying these words, Christ promised that those who would follow Him would certainly be persecuted. This is a central prediction of the Gospel and an essential condition of those who accept it.

Martyr Juvenaly of Alaska

Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.’”  If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know Him who sent me.’  (Jn 15.20-21).

            True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ’s sake. They will be persecuted with Christ and like Christ, for the truth that they speak and the good that they do. The persecutions may not always be physical, but they will always be spiritual and psychological. They will always be mindless, unjust, violent, and “without cause” (Ps 69.4, Jn 15.25). They will always be painful and the cause of much suffering. For ‘indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12).

           A person embarking on the spiritual life must expect persecution and slander. He must be wary, however, of any false persecution complex, and must be absolutely certain that the suffering he meets is solely ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and not because of his own weakness and sins.”  (Thomas Hopko, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 50)

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this;, rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e. himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

Responding to the Resurrection

Fr Dmitri Dudko (d. 2004) was an Orthodox priest during the communist reign in the Soviet Union.  He defied Soviet authority by preaching question and answer style sermons to teach the faithful the Gospel.  This eventually led to his arrest and imprisonment where he was forced by the KGB to renounce his activities for the Church.   He understood what it was to live in a place and time in which Christians were persecuted by the state.  Here are some words he spoke in a sermon before his imprisonment.  They are encouraging words to all Christians who feel threatened by changes in the world or by Islamic terrorists.   Despite our fears, we still need to witness to the Gospel and the resurrection.  The original disciples themselves hid in fear after Christ’s crucifixion.  Eventually, however, they went out into the world to proclaim the Gospel with all of them facing various torments and persecutions and executions.   Here are the words of Fr. Dmitri commenting on what Christ said to Mary Magdalene:

“‘Go to My brothers and tell them what you have seen and heard.’ What does this mean? Simply, that having recognized the risen Christ you can’t lock yourself up in your own private world. No one who tries to protect his faith by running away from all trials and tribulations knows Christ yet. Christ is the Savior of the world. He came to save each person.

Knowing this, how can we not proclaim the risen Christ to the world? Can we look on calmly as people perish, not knowing Christ – some of these, moreover, being very gifted people who could do quite a bit? We see how people stumble about with no support, enduring their earthly trials? Why – out of personal fear – are we unable to give them support? Often we’re afraid to reach out a hand to those who don’t know God, thinking that in this way we are defending, protecting our faith, though in reality we are losing it. Could Mary have left the tomb without saying a thing to anyone? Could threats have made her be afraid? After all, threats are just amusing if you know that Christ is risen. What can our personal earthly well-being mean in the face of this fact?

Anyone who knows the risen Christ has a heavy responsibility placed upon himself. He must bring to people the news of Christ’s resurrection, in whatever way he can and wherever destiny leads him If you’ve been with Mary to Christ’s tomb, if you’ve been convinced that it’s empty because Christ is risen, then go and tell everyone about it. Christ is risen! May God bless you and help you! Amen.”   (Our Hope, pp 291-292)

Like many Christians in history, Fr. Dmitri was eventually broken by threats of the KGB.  Feeling unable to endure the threats in imprisonment, he publicly denounced his activities on behalf of the Church.  After the fall of communism, humbled by his own humanness, he confessed his brokenness saying, “I thought if I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t live … Compared to the hell that I then brought into my soul, anything – even torture or execution – would have been easier to bear.”  He feared torture and death, but then found his heart and mind tortured by his choice to avoid further suffering by caving in to the KGB threats.  That he felt created a greater hell his heart than torture or execution ever would have.

Hope in the resurrection is a joyous experience which can carry us through life.  Hoping in the resurrection might also lead to our being persecuted by those who hate God.

We Orthodox honor St. John the Baptist for his willingness to suffer for truth joyously.  May we each have that same spirit and remain faithful to the Gospel even in the face of threats or terror.

In the Love of God

“The love of our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, of God the Father, and of the Holy Ghost to us is so great, so immeasurable, that, in comparison to it all human dislike, enmity, and hatred against us become insignificant, and seem to vanish entirely. It is because of this boundlessness of God’s love towards us and the insignificance of human enmity that the Savior commanded us to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and to pray for them which despitefully use and persecute us (St. Matthew V. 44). We are in the love of God; does it greatly matter to us if men are not well disposed towards us? What can they do against us when God has so loved us?”   (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p 229)

Constantine’s Triumph Over Imperial Rivals

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Did Constantine become Christian?  This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

Two of the important sources of information about Constantine are the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339AD) and the rhetorician  Lactantius (d. ca 325AD).   Because they often write in praise of Constantine, some modern historians are leery of their objectivity as historians.  However, we can learn something about historians just by looking at how Leithart and Stephenson deal with Lactantius.    Below is a quote from each of the modern historians dealing with a similar topic – Lactantius evaluation of Constantine’s competing co-emperors who were not tolerant of Christianity.   The comments of Leithart and Stephenson betray or reveal their own assumptions (one can see how changing a word – reveal or betray – can change the meaning of a sentence).

 “Not only did Lactantius delight in the misfortune and demise of the persecuting emperors, he also attributed them to the intervention of the god of the Christians, defending the interests of the faithful.  Such an approach rejected the very premise on which martyrs had accepted death at the hands of their persecutors: that their god did not meddle in earthly affairs o bring misfortune upon Roman emperors.  This was the first step in articulating a new Christian triumphalistic rhetoric…  In doing so, Lactantius drew on an Old Testament model, the Second Book of Maccabees, which still forms an accepted part of the Orthodox canon.  Thus, the opening refrain of each text thanks God for punishing the wicked, and the agonizing death of Galerius mirrors that of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Maccabees 9).  And just as Judas Maccabeus is promised divine aid in a dream before his victory over Nicanor, so Constantine dreams that he will conquer his rival Maxentius.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  109)

Stephenson casts Lactantius in a more negative light, but makes an insightful comparison to 2 Maccabees which helps us understand Lactantius desire to show Constantine is in the same religious tradition which includes Judas Maccabeus and Christ.  Leithart sees the same tendency in Lactanius to rejoice in the demise of Constantine’s opposition but he then interprets this through the lens of “freedom of conscience.”   Leithart sees Lactantius as interpreting Constantine as the defender of religious toleration and opposing those other tyrannical emperors who were persecuting the Christians.

“Though he detested the persecuting emperors and merrily detailed their gruesome deaths, Lactantius’s basic plea was for freedom of conscience.  ‘Religion is the one field in which freedom has pitched her tent,’ Lactantius wrote, ‘for religion is, first and foremost, a matter of free will, and no man can be forced under compulsion to adore what he has no will to adore.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  107)

Stephenson interprets Lactantius’delight in the rise of Christianity as betraying an earlier Christianity – the Christianity of the martyrs.  According to Stephenson the martyrs accepted their persecution and death because they were trying to demonstrate to the empire that Christianity was no threat to emperors or the empire and therefore should be tolerated.   According to Stephenson, Lactantius completely abandons this ideal, reveling in his heavy Christian partisanship by rejoicing that the God of the Christians was in fact overthrowing the emperors.  Stephenson’s thesis though seems to ignore the fact that Christians had a strong proselytizing ethic, believing that God’s dominion extended over everything including the entire Roman empire.   Indeed when the Christians were a persecuted minority they had to deal with questions about why they were suffering and why God allowed evil to triumph and why they were persecuted.   The Christians seem to have dealt pretty successfully with these questions:  despite their suffering persecution withtheir leaders being martyred, the faith continued to spread and the Church continued to grow.

Leithart sees Lactantius well within the tradition of the early martyrs for in Leithart’s read of history just as the martyrs appealed to Rome for toleration of their practices (we accept martyrdom under the hand of the emperors: we will die for our faith but not kill for it) when the political fortunes changed and Christians were no longer being persecuted Leithart sees Lactanius as continuing to argue for freedom of conscious.  Lactantius indeed rejoiced in the reversal of fortune he witnessed for his fellow Christians but at least according to Leithart he does not abandon the idea that each of us is called to exercise a freedom of conscience in choosing what we believe about God.  The triumph of Christianity was not an immediate narrowing of the mind of the Christians but was cause for them to rejoice in what God was doing on their behalf.

Next:  Constantine and the Christian Bishops (1)

Orthodoxy in Relationship to the World

This is the 16th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Liturgical Worship.

Christianity has never existed as the only religion around.  The very birth of the Christian religion put it in relationship both to the Judaism of Palestine and to the Greco-Roman paganism of the Roman Empire.   Christianity’s early experience was that of an unwanted religion which suffered rejection, hostility and persecution.   Christianity labored without the protection of any army or king to advance its cause for the first three hundred plus years of its existence.

            All of that changed in the 4th Century CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine granted toleration to the Christian religion and then championed Christianity as a means to unifying his empire.   The experience of being an oppressed minority did not however lead the Christians to being empathetic with or sympathetic to other religious minorities once the Christians came to power in the 4th Century CE.   Christianity and Orthodox Christianity have had a hostile relationship to Judaism throughout the Christian period.    By modern Western standards, Orthodox liturgical texts, which are quite ancient, are also sometimes anti-Semitic as well as expressing condemnation of heretics and Judas.   In some ways this is strange since Judaism never posed any threat to established Christianity in the Roman Empire or in the modern world.   In another sense, Orthodox hymns took on a very “nationalistic” tone, mirroring the values of the empires in which Orthodoxy ruled.

            Christianity did aggressively work to convert pagans and Greek philosophers to the Faith.   Some of the best early Christian writings are efforts to offer an apology for Christianity to intellectual pagans and philosophers.   This led to and was aided by the Christian embrace of the Greek language and often of Hellenistic concepts and terminology.   Christianity came to see itself as theologically superior to all other forms of religion and philosophy.   The Byzantine Orthodox Empire was a hotbed of religious controversy and debate leading the Orthodox world to produce a sophisticated theology, and to be in constant dialogue with the ideas, religions and nations of the world.

 Beginning in the 7th Century CE, with the rise of Islam, the Orthodox Byzantine Empire found itself facing a new religious and political challenge.  Orthodoxy closely aligning itself with the Byzantine Empire faced in Islam a religious giant which also had its own army and its own political designs on the world.    At first the Orthodox assumed Islam was a revival of one of the old Christian heresies which did not recognize the divinity of Christ.   But as time wore on and the Islamic armies seemed unstoppable in their successes against the Byzantines, the Orthodox developed a more realistic assessment of this new religion.  However, they also suffered in their ability to deal with Islam, because their own mythology made them assume they were the God chosen and God protected empire.   They struggled mightily with a way to understand the success of Islam, and concluded that it was their own sinfulness which had brought the Islamic scourge to their doorsteps.   This thinking often resulted in the Orthodox attempting to become ever more faithful to their own tradition, which was an increased spiral of conservatism and traditionalism (looking to the past for answers) which has been a hallmark of Orthodoxy to this day.    Once the Orthodox found themselves under Islamic domination, they became increasingly ossified in their thinking and ways of doing things in an effort to preserve their customs and traditions in a now totally hostile world.  This in turn led to increased nationalism among the Orthodox peoples, who had always enjoyed a certain degree of localness in their practice and customs.   But the nationalism caused even further divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and among the different ethnic Orthodox churches.    Unlike Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy did not have a church structure with one head of the entire church.   The various patriarchates of ancient Byzantium led to the various nationalistic churches of the modern Orthodox world.

Next:  Orthodoxy in Relationship to Christianity Worldwide

The Tragedy of the Orthodox Churches in Kosovo

Though the destruction of the churches in Kosovo is old news, it certainly is worth our remembering. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…. It is to fulfil the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’ ”  (John 15:18-25)

Some of the destruction inflicted on these churches was the mindless destruction of those who do not know Jesus Christ and yet hate Him without reason.  

Some of the destruction was understood by the destoryers to be a revenge on Christians for their sins and for being of the world and too tied in to the powers of this world.   May the God of mercy forgive us all.

We pray for those who love us and those who hate us, and all who ask for our prayers unworthy though we be. 

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”  (Luke 6:27-28, 35-36)