Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Martyrdom of the Pedantic Protestant

Scripture is clear that suffering is not only to be expected by the Christian, but, our modern sensibilities are further offended at statements that clearly indicate that suffering is a gift from God. For example, St Paul tells the Christians at Phillipi that it was not granted to them not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for Him. Paul also clearly identifies this suffering as evidence of their salvation as well as evidence for the destruction of those who oppose them. [Phil 1:27-30.] As another example, St Peter tells "those who are chosen and residing in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" to not be surprised that they are undergoing a trial by fire, but rather to rejoice in the degree to which they share in the sufferings of Christ, and to view this as a blessing. [I Peter 4:12-17.]

The concept of suffering relative to a believer is quite general, but often in the early days of Christianity suffering meant death. The inspired authors of the NT writings were, among other things, telling the recipients of the epistles that death was a real option.

We live close to two millenia after the bulk of the New Testament writings were composed [going by conservative dating of the NT writings], and presumably readers of this post are living in conditions that are at least as safe as those of the original recipients of the NT epistles that deal with, among other things, suffering.

I live in the suburbs of a large city, have a fairly comfortable job, a few good friends, no worries about food or the next meal, and have a not-too-shabby roof over the head. As a middle-class American on the verge of upper-middle-classdom, I have the standard of living of which a king only a century ago would dare dream. My educated guess is that most other readers are more or less in the same boat.

But where is the suffering?

Since being brought back into the Christian fold about a decade ago, what is really the worst thing that has happened to me on account of "the Name that is above every other Name?"

I certainly haven't lost money or possessions over the faith. Nor have I even been placed in a situation where fidelity to truth would cause a loss of my middle class comfy existence. Perhaps I would've been wealthier today had I continued down my secular path, but there is no way of being decisive on the point; one could easily play "What if?" to the reverse situation and claim that I may have been poorer today had I stayed in the secular fold. So, there hasn't been any economic suffering of notice.

What about one's social life? Here I can say [proudly?] that yes, there has been some suffering. This has taken a few forms.

(a) One form is that a sort of wall comes up between the believer and his more secular friends, making formerly close relations now more distant and guarded, often with embarrassment between both parties. I had a friend who was a Scientologist, and the whole Christian thing pretty much frosted things. Other friends at graduate school were less close, especially in important matters [such as ladies, ladies, and ladies] that should be of interest to any twentysomething male, for their lifestyle and ambitions [lots of sex outside marriage!] were not fully consistent with the Christian ethos. We still would talk and stay on friendly terms, but the communal joy of rabblerousing, sharing details of one's rabblerousing, etc was no longer a licit fruit of such a friendship.

(b) The more serious form of suffering in the social sense is the general loss of friends. This hit me most acutely because it was at this time that I didn't have too many problems meeting women and perhaps winning or inducing their interest. [That was then...this, alas is now.] However, Christianity is not conducive to secular women, for it is not conducive to unregenerate Man. So, in this sense, the pool of eligible females was severely diminished if not completely obliterated. Going to a state graduate school and belonging to a conservative church body with no single females was a real problem.

But, one can look back at this and say Big deal! and be completely correct. Whether typical or not, I've often fully experienced both poles of a phenomenon. I was picked last for all of the PE games in grade school, yet I made a few all-star teams in baseball as I got older and even tried my hand at college basketball [NCAA DII level, and, no, I didn't succeed]. I've felt overwhelmed as a student, nearly failing out of college [thanks to basketball and Nintendo], but I'm now a professor in a hard scientific/deductive field with a few nice pieces of work to my name. I've been poor but now I'm comfortable. And, socially, I've more than once trod near the poles of popularity, being popular and quite unpopular at multiple stages of my life.

Because of being both popular and unpopular, losing friends over the faith, while not desirable, was not viewed by the PP as some sort of devastating loss. People have various strengths and resistances --- one man can successfully withstand sexual temptation, another man has no predisposition towards chemicals, and another man is comfortable enough in his own skin to where he does need validation through popularity. I enjoyed the latter resistance, and still do. So, while losing some friends long ago could count as suffering, it really wasn't the sort of suffering on the sort of scale that the NT writers seem to envisage. It wasn't pleasant, to be sure, but it would be silly to feel as if one has survived the worst that can happen.

Leaving the realm of the social life and turning to issues of health, what can be said here? Well, the PP is as healthy as a horse, so no suffering on this account.

Basically, the last ten years have been, to say it cheekily, a breeze.

But, if one takes Scripture seriously, suffering will come, and it is a frightening thought [at least for me] just how one will react when real suffering actualizes in one's life, especially if one has had a relatively easy and quiet life.
I suppose that in this case God would carry one through the suffering, and God would not give one more than one could bear. Actually, this needn't be a supposition, since the NT is clear about this.

The most frightening thing, as far as I can see, is the possibility of martyrdom. The history of the Christian Church is marked with the martyrdom of many people who were willing to die for the faith. Could you, the reader, state without reservation that you could die for the faith?

Speaking for myself, I'd very much like to say so, but I have no past data on which to base any confidence. My life has not been marked with the extremes of holiness that many martyrs have exhibited. There has been justification and a slow process of sanctification, but there is arguably nothing in me that would cause somebody to believe that I'd stand firm in the face of death.

The manner of death has something to do with it as well. Death by lethal injection, guillotine, firing squad, etc, don't really seem too bad as far as martyrdom goes. I could, at least while sitting in my comfy computer chair with a Diet Coke by my side, visualize going down for the count without recanting in such a situation. After all, as Paul says in Phillipians, it is far better to depart and be with Christ; he also mentions that to die is to gain [eternal life] in this setting.

But, alas, euthanization is often not part-and-parcel of martyrdom. Deaths are often protracted affairs, owing their impetus to the original protracted death --- that death being of Jesus.

Suppose a totalitarian regime takes over and threatens believers with not only death, but a protracted vicious death. Each reader will have his own particular nightmare death; the PP thinks of Room 101 from 1984 and shudders. Could you stay firm in a long protracted death? I have a strong reticence to even typing out some possible slow-and-painful death scenarios to list --- how then could I stand firm if I were the victim of such a deadly scenario?

St Polycarp, according to his Martyrdom while being prepared to be burnt alive, prayed

O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast fore-ordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages, Amen.

Could you imitate Blessed Polycarp, disciple of St John bar-Zebedee? Could you imitate his bold spirit during the preparation of his funeral pile, where he told those who wanted to nail him to the pile to
Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.

or would you have a quite different reaction?

I don't think these are trivial questions, and would even be predisposed to bristle at the claims of a man who could confidently claim Polycarp-like resolve.

All of the questions asked here really aren't trivial, and, to be honest, are ones that I don't like thinking of too often. On the other hand, thinking about such horrible things makes financial loss, social loss, etc seem like trivial affairs in comparison!


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