I have wondered at times throughout my life why martyred Christians refused to sacrifice to Caesar or deny that they followed Christ. Indeed, as I’ve been reading from the ancient church fathers and mothers this semester in my church history class, this same question has come to mind several times. Why not just deny? Your life is spared for another day and then you get to go back home and be Christian, share the good news of Jesus with others, and continue building the church community. God will forgive, the church will forgive, and everyone’s good.
The Romans wondered this as well. Local rulers would even plead with these Christians to deny Christ so that they (the rulers) would not have to execute them. Many of the local rulers felt that the Christians were not a real threat to the empire, were good people, and contributed in many great ways to the empire. Many of them did not want to kill the Christians, but in the end they did because the Christians were breaking the law. They even would use the reasoning I used above… just deny Jesus right now here in this court and go back to your community and be Christian and stop getting caught!
It occurred to me today what the real harm in denial is about, why the Romans would plead for a denial, and why I have wondered this as well. Empire!
Yes… EMPIRE. As a product of the American empire and the Romans a product of their empire, I have been schooled in a particular way of living in the world. A part of that way of living is “say whatever you need to say, do whatever you need to do, to advance our cause in the world (we would of course believe it to be a noble cause, even go as far as calling it a Godly cause: peace, freedom, liberty, democracy). We justify our actions in this way. If war and violence is needed to advance the cause, then we go to war in order to create peace down the road. If we have suspect in custody at a jail and need to tell him a few lies to get him to talk, then fantastic. We caught the guy. Justice is served. We feel safe again. And if we think we are doing something that is wrong, we figure that we can ask for forgiveness later. This is in fact the way empires have always acted. Some are more compassionate than others. Some are more moral than others. Some have better systems than others. But ultimately, the empire is the great deception.
The Christian martyrs of history and contemporary continue to refuse to deny Jesus Christ. They do so knowing that such a refusal is a direct confrontation of the very core values that make up the empire.