I believe that the stories of the early martyrs of the Church show us something profound about Christian theology: the fact that the early Christians did not fight back when faced with violent persecution is an acknowledgement of humanity’s inclusion in Christ.

In order to respond to violence with violence you have to regard the other person as somehow something different than yourself, somehow less than human or excluded from the humanity in which you are a participant. No officer ever tells his soldiers “go murder your brothers in the other army.” He says something like “wipe those @#!% off the face of the earth!!” Responding to violence with violence requires thinking like a roach exterminator, not thinking like a child of the Father in relationship with humanity in Jesus.

When Jesus said “Father, forgive them” and when the martyrs of the church have echoed his words, they were acknowledging that we are all in this together. The persecuted and the persecutor, the perpetrator and the victim, both share together in the life the Son shares with the Father and with humanity.

Thus the prayer for forgiveness. What the perpetrators of violence and persecution need is not a repayment of their violence in kind or even a transformation from being animals to being human in Christ. They are already human in Christ, they just aren’t acting like it. What they need is a change of mind – a repentance. To stop believing lies about themselves and start believing the truth: that they, like the ones they are persecuting, are already forgiven and included in Christ. In some of the stories of the martyrs the ones assigned to carry out their persecutions failed to do so. Sometimes in the martyrologies the persecutors stop, repent, and end up going to the death with the very ones they were told to kill (e.g. St. Alban’s executioner.)

In the end the Christian response to persecution in the ancient Roman world brought about the repentance and conversion of the Empire itself. With one voice the early church for three long centuries said of their Roman persecutors “They are human; they, like us, are part of the new humanity created in the Son’s incarnation; Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And the truth of this good news won the day. Perhaps it’s time for the church to return to the truth of humanity’s adoption in the Son and find again the power that comes from praying for those who persecute us and loving those that hate us.

~ Jonathan Stepp

4 comments so far

  1. Mark McCulley on

    Jonathan, this is a very interesting approach and I think you’re right. Let me expand briefly on one idea: thinking other persons as “different from yourself” posits me as the superior being, whether it’s in terms of afflicting violence on them or in a self-righteous way, asking the Father’s forgiveness.
    Only by thinking of the other as included in the Son’s love for the Father and vice versa, the same as I am (by grace, not in any other way), can I accept, begin to understand, and love that person as an equal.

  2. Greg on

    Amen. I agree 100% Ptr. Jonathan. love begets a love. forgiveness begets forgiveness, grace begets grace.

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