vila rica


2º Trimestre de 2024 - O GRANDE CONFLITO

Standing for the Truth

Commentary for the April 27, 2024, Sabbath School Lesson


"Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated--the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground." Hebrews 11:36-38

As I look at the bookshelf in my den, I see versions of the Bible in several languages. I am free to pull one off the shelf and read it. In past ages, there were those who willingly died to give me that right. Such persecution does not exist where I live. It has been replaced by indifference by those who choose not to believe towards those who do. Little knowledge exists outside the Christian community about the price paid to secure that freedom. It happened long ago, and we have religious freedom enshrined in the United States Constitution, so it is irrelevant to today's Christian community. Or is it?

In the early years of the church, beginning with Stephen in Jerusalem, Christians were martyred for their faith. This is a stark contrast to modern Christianity. While they lost properties, status, and even their lives in the 1st -3rd centuries, today we spend far more time accumulating all that the world has to offer, knowing that no one will take it from us because of our faith. While this is not true globally, most Christians avoid the sacrifice entailed by avoiding living in those countries that persecute them. Instead, we go to primarily safe countries to build churches, hospitals, and schools, often returning to the safety of the United States when circumstances threaten our lives or our property. But early Christians did not have that opportunity available. Rome was everywhere. To flee persecution was often to only die tired.

The temptation was strong to recant one's faith to live and prosper in the Roman Empire. Early on, expecting Jesus soon return and the resurrection of the faithful dead, many willingly gave their lives rather than renounce Jesus. But by the 3rd century under Emperor Diocletian things had changed. Christians were promised if they would only burn a little incense to the emperor, they could continue their lives unmolested. While many refused and paid with their lives, many others, including clergy told themselves the incense meant nothing, burned it, and went on about their lives. The church often disfellowshipped these individuals for betraying the faith. After Diocletian died and the persecution ended, some of these wanted to return to fellowship, and this created a theological crisis. Were these people eternally damned for betraying Jesus by burning the incense? And what about the clergy who fell away? Were those they baptized and ordained valid Christians? The church of Rome was willing to accept them back into the fold, but the Donatists of North Africa were not, and conflict between Roma and the Donatists raged until Augustine of Hippo developed a theological framework for the state's power to destroy religious dissent. Then the power of Rome was brought to bear, ending the dissent. This was a power previously enjoyed in Imperial Rome. It was the basis for Diocletian's edict. But Augustine created the justification for the church to enlist the state, to swing from being persecuted to becoming the persecutor. Some may feel that the Council of Nicaea in the early 4th century was the turning point that provided the validation for persecution of dissenting Christians by Rome to begin. That council may have opened the door for the state to enter the church, but it was Augustine that gave the state wings.

The state has often sought unity by using religion to achieve that result. By attacking the Christian dissenters, the church responded by willingly opening its doors to state largesse. The first real trial of this was at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Bishop Athanasius and Bishop Arius had long been disputing over the nature of Christ. Both had significant numbers of followers, and neither was able to prevail. Athanasius appealed to Constantine at Nicaea to condemn Arius as a heretic. The emperor complied by ceding Arius's lands and property to his opponents. While this destroyed Arius financially, it did not dissuade his followers. Persecution often only causes believers to become even more entrenched in their beliefs. Once Constantine had accomplished having the church recognize imperial power in this way, he later relented and restored Arius's lands to him. But the damage had been done, and Augustine built upon that precedent to create the justification for the state to unite with religion to persecute dissenters.

By the middle of the 6th century Arius's followers had been conquered, though not eradicated. The modern Jehovah's Witnesses keep Arius's teachings about the nature of Christ alive. But the conquest did not mean a stop to the church employing the state to persecute and murder Christian dissenters. History has a lengthy list of campaigns that killed hundreds of thousands. Cathars, Waldenses, Huguenots and many other dissenters who did not have the power of the state to back them up fell before the weapons of state armies blessed by Rome and sent to destroy them. In countries that served the Catholic Church, inquisitors were given power to destroy those who would dissent from Rome, often condemning those who refused to recant, or Jews who refused baptism to the flames.

Dissenters learned well from Rome, and they began to align themselves with state power in resistance to this persecution. For centuries, Europe was wracked by wars as dissenting Protestants battled Catholics over whether faith should be an individual matter or controlled by the state. States like Britain that wanted to truncate papal power in the British Isles were just as willing to use the Protestant church as Constantine was to use the Catholic faith for state ends. Many died as the British throne vacillated between Catholic and Protestant monarchs pressing conflicting religious agendas. By the 17th century, people who were desperate to flee all the bloodshed and persecution in Europe began to arrive in the Americas. Unfortunately, many had learned well in the Old World and brought the willingness to use the state to enforce orthodoxy to the new lands. Puritans, settling in New England, persecuted and murdered Quaker heretics. Less than two decades after the landing at Plymouth Rock, they also drove Roger Williams out. Williams then founded Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom, a principle that found its way into the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

While a founding principle of religion in the United States, in practice we often fall short. Memories of the religious wars of Europe were still fresh when the Potato Famine in Ireland dumped starving Irish on United States shores, Irish who were mostly Catholic. This brought the wars to a new land, igniting a Protestant Crusade against the incoming Catholic immigrants.[i] While we often tout ourselves as a country founded on religious freedom, we have struggled to make it a reality. Every new wave of immigrants seems to reignite the flames of religious conflict. Now it is the arrival of Muslim immigrants that seems to be the tinder threatening to ignite religious conflict. Despite this, we have often felt we dwell in peace and safety compared to other, harsher regimes elsewhere. But some question whether that safety derives from our democratic society or from an unwillingness to risk what we have to stand on religious principles. In other words, have we become too wealthy? Compared to others around the world, we have so much, and they have so little. The difference is so stark that we feel threatened by those desperate refugees who come to our borders with nothing, seeking entrance. We say there is no room. Germany is the same size as the state of Montana but has eight times the population density. Compared to some other countries, we are practically empty.

For the Christian, there is an added concern. The Bible tells us that an apocalypse is coming. Things will steadily get worse and like the flood of Noah's time, there will be no recourse short of divine intervention. Jesus represented the event to come as a loving return to take his people home for the places he has prepared for them.[ii] The book of Revelation, represents it as a horrible, bloody retribution against those who refuse a relationship with Jesus. I can understand why Martin Luther questioned including Revelation in the Bible. Although purported to be by John, it clashes with everything else John wrote about Jesus. It expresses the frustration of those who were martyred for remaining faithful but have not yet been resurrected by Jesus' return. Evangelists have been preaching ever since the time of Jesus that his return is imminent. Two thousand years later, we are still waiting and many, many believers have been laid to rest in the interim. As their descendants, we live in relative peace and safety. We presume that will continue to be the case. There is no urgency as things have gone on with no indication of change in the immediate future. But the Bible says prophetically, "While people are saying, 'Peace and safety,' destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape." (1 Thessalonians 5:3) Should we worry?

[i] Billington, Ray Allen, "The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860," Quadrangle Paperbacks, 1964. This book is a well-written and researched chronology of the period and religious atmosphere that gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I recommend it to those who want to understand the times.

[ii] John 14:1-3

Stephen Terry, Director