Pity the Persecutor

Are we being Persecuted? At face value it appears that way. Churches are closed and an enthusiastic police officer can fine individuals for gathering together. On the other hand, the restrictions affect everyone, not just religious organisations. It’s for the public good and the restrictions will be lifted at some stage. 

I read up on some of the persecutions Christians faced in the early days. Until around 250AD, persecution was piecemeal, limited to individual provinces and cities, affected by the local governor or citizens’ mood and circumstance. Early theologian Tertullian remarked: “When the Tiber (Rome’s river) floods, or the Nile fails to flood, up goes the cry: Christians to the lion!”. From 250, silencing and killing Christ’s followers became an official, empire-wide policy. In that year, Emperor Decius insisted that all free persons offer sacrifice to the gods on pain of death before a magistrate who would write a certificate. Uncertificated persons were executed. Before this ‘world-wide’ oppression, other persecutions had still ended many thousands of lives. 

Even when persecution isn’t an official state policy, or even a local hobby, individual members or sections of the community may offer hostility and offer obstruction to the Christian. In the early days, many believers were considered unpatriotic, putting their private beliefs over the empire’s good. Many refused to join the army or take part in civic occasions because of the pagan idolatry such institutions celebrated. They were accused of being immoral- incestuous, cannibals and practitioners of black magic. The second charge may have come from misunderstanding of the communion service, eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood. The first may have resulted from Christians only taking marriage partners from within their own community, and referring to each other as brother and sister. Many in the ancient world were bisexually promiscuous; those who limited themselves to one heterosexual partner were deemed suspect. Thirdly, the apostolic miracles and petitions to a powerful, unseen God must have persuaded some hostile witnesses that the Christians were dealing with dark forces. A fourth charge, which is wonderfully ironic in terms of today’s climate, was one of atheism. The Christians, by refuting the gods’ existence, were deniers of the divine, the most reprobate of persons.

Sometimes no excuse for persecution was needed other than a decline in local conditions, such as a flood or drought, as Tertullian’s remark indicates. A poor harvest was evidence of the gods’ displeasure. A bountiful harvest was evidence of the gods’ approval of former persecutions. Success of an enemy army was divine judgement for tolerating so vile a band of people at home. Victory of the empire’s own troops was proof that their supplications to Mars and Jupiter had been accepted.

The ultimate reason for persecution is given by the Lord Jesus in the fifteenth chapter of John:

If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. 

The Christian stands for righteousness and truth, not a fallen world’s default status of darkness and lies. As John Stott said “Persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value-systems”.

Some cultures and civilisations have been tolerant of these light-bearers. Others have been so influenced by them that their values have become mainstream. Others, sadly, have no respect or toleration, cruelly treating God’s beloved folk. However, it’s not the persecuted Christian for whom I fear, but the persecutor. The former will be sustained in strength and rewarded in glory; the latter will derive little satisfaction on earth and a great deal of ignominious shame when they give account to Him whose people they wronged. In Matthew 5, Jesus urges His followers to pray for their persecutors. They are, after all, going to need all the help they can get. 

Image by Ian Lindsay from Pixabay