Persecution is the price we pay for truth
Persecution is suffering. It can be inflicted by authorities, groups or individuals, usually for the silencing or subjugation of unacceptable opinions or beliefs. It has been endured by the Church since its inception within the Roman Empire, where Christianity was initially identified with Judaism, a religio licita, but in which a tiny and relatively insignificant 'sect' gradually established its own religious, social and political identity which was viewed as a threat to the political order. Early Christians therefore had to contend with persecution from three sources: the Jews, the Romans, and, as various groups grappled with ever-increasing theological differences, each other.
The worship of pagan gods and of the emperor was commonplace throughout the empire, and the Christians’ non-participation in pagan rituals and general separateness brought accusations of anti-social behaviour. Talk of eating the body and blood of Jesus, and the customary greeting with a kiss, brought charges of cannibalism and incest. Tacitus spoke of Christians as being a "notoriously depraved" people who held to a "deadly superstition", and they consequently became associated with the collegia - clubs or secret societies. Such groups were considered a threat to political stability because of the threat of sedition. To refuse to participate in the pagan emperor-cult was a political as well as a religious act, and could easily be construed as dangerous disaffection. In the opinion of the general populace, such a crowd of wretches were plainly worthy of extermination, and any repressive measures that were taken against them by authority could be sure of popular approval. Successive emperors were therefore able to inflict persecutions with varying degrees of vehemence.
Nero arrested multitudes of Christians, and had them put to death in the most shocking manner. Their crime was not so much incendiarism as their anti-social tendencies. Dressed in wild animal skins, they were torn apart by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Persecution became so great that it became the hope of many Christians to die a quick death by beheading (the usual punishment for Roman citizens). However, their citizenship did not always save them from the tortures. It was during this period that both Peter and Paul were martyred, probably within a year of each other.
Trajan followed suit. One of his governors, Pliny the Younger, was of the mind that Christians ought to be exterminated simply because of their "squalid superstition", not so much for any specific criminal activity. But Trajan insisted that credible charges should be brought against them, and execution was to follow unless he or she recanted and gave proof by invoking pagan gods. Persecution was especially bad in Syria and Palestine. In 107 Trajan went to Antioch and demanded that everyone sacrifice to the gods. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and pupil of the apostle John, wrote to Polycarp, another disciple of John, on his way to Rome: "Let the fire, the gallows, the wild beasts, the breaking of bones, the pulling asunder of members, the bruising of my whole body, and the torments of the devil and hell itself come upon me, so that I may win Christ Jesus." Ignatius refused to sacrifice to the gods, and was martyred by being thrown to wild animals.
Tertullian later observed observed: "The Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune that befalls the people. If the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds its rain, if there is earthquake or famine or plague, straightway the cry arises: 'The Christians to the lions!’.” Clement of Alexandria recorded the consequences: "Many martyrs are daily burned, confined, or beheaded, before our eyes."
In AD202, Septimius enacted a law prohibiting the spread of both Christianity and Judaism. This was the first universal decree forbidding conversion to Christianity. Violent persecution broke out in Egypt and North Africa. Leonides, father of Origen, was beheaded. A record exists of a young girl being cruelly tortured, then burned in a kettle of burning pitch with her mother, and a poignant testimony of how Christianity crossed social barriers is evidenced in the martyrdom of Perpetua in Carthage. It is reported that this young noblewoman held hands with Felicitas, a slave girl, and exchanged a kiss before being thrown to wild animals at a public festival.
When Decius Trajan ascended the throne, he published an edict calling for a return to the pagan state religion. Local commissioners were appointed to enforce the ruling, which was the signal for a persecution which, in extent, consistency, and cruelty, exceeded all before it. It was the first to extend over the whole empire. When people were suspected of being Christians, they were given the opportunity of offering sacrifice to the gods before the commissioners. Certificates were issued to prove a person’s loyalty to the pagan religions. Many Christians yielded to the pressure, but those who refused were imprisoned and interrogated. There was no overt pursuit of martyrs, but rather a desire for conformity and syncretisation. Christians who stood their ground were subject to confiscation of property, exile, torture, imprisonment, and death. Those who conformed and offered sacrifices were excommunicated.
During the reign of Diocletian, the struggle between pagan Rome and the Christians caused persecutions so terrible that all before were forgotten. Eusebius records: "Christian churches were to be burned; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; all Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights; and, without exception, all Christians were to sacrifice to the gods upon pain of death." An edict was issued in 308 ordering all men, with wives, children, and servants, to offer sacrifice to the gods, and sprinkle their provisions in the markets with sacrificial wine. Christians had to conform or starve. All the pains, which iron and steel, fire and sword, rack and cross, wild beasts and beastly men could inflict, were employed against the church"
Some, suffering the punishment of parricides, were shut up in a sack with snakes and thrown into the sea; others were tied to huge stones and cast into a river. For Christians the cross itself was not deemed sufficient agony; hanging on the tree, they were beaten with rods until their bowels gushed out, while vinegar and salt were rubbed into their wounds...Christians were tied to catapults, and so wrenched from limb to limb. Some...were thrown to the beasts; others were tied to their horns. Women were stripped, enclosed in nets, and exposed to the attacks of furious bulls. Many were made to lie on sharp shells, and tortured with scrapers, claws, and pincers, before being delivered to the mercy of the flames. Not a few were broken on the wheel, or torn in pieces by wild horses. Of some the feet were slowly burned away, cold water being dowsed over them the while lest the victims should expire too rapidly...Down the backs of others melted lead, hissing and bubbling, was poured; while a few ‘by the clemency of the emperor’ escaped with the searing out of their eyes, or the tearing off of their legs.Persecution ultimately failed because it separated the wheat from the chaff and caused growth. Eusebius’ account of the martyrdom of Polycarp tells us: "When one governor in Asia Minor in the second century began persecuting the Christians, the entire Christian population of the region paraded before his house as a manifesto of their faith." The suffering of some Christians spurred others to more faithful living. Martyrs were perceived as having heroic qualities, and many peasants, onlookers, soldiers and members of the nobility became Christians through their witness. Tertullian observed: "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." Tacitus agreed, after the persecutions of Nero, that "in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition broke out afresh, not only in Judaea... but even in Rome".
In his letter to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul confirms that many of his brothers in the Lord had been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly (Phil 1:14). The Apostles played a fundamental role in encouraging, sustaining and instilling faith into all those who faced whatever the world threw at them; from minor insults (1Pt 4:4) to appalling deaths (Acts 7:58). Many of the NT letters have an emphasis on overcoming and enduring. For Paul, persecution was nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it was one of the marks of true gospel ministry (2Cor 4:7-17; 11:23-28) and discipleship (Phil 3:10-11; Col 1:24). He emphasised that sharing in the sufferings of Christ translates into sharing future glory (Rom 8:17-18; Col 3:1). And Peter confirms that it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God (1Pt 2:19). Suffering for righteousness’ sake was the key: "But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled" (3:14). Peter believes that this is their calling "because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps" (2:21).
This is the essence of the faith exhibited by the Early Church. Suffering was not a solitary endurance. Not only was Christ there to guide them, but they had each other: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Heb 10:25). It is said that the absence of fear was one of the hallmarks of the Early Church, and this permitted them to confront the persecutions head-on, however vicious or sustained they may have been. It is a fanciful view, for who would not reasonably fear the pains of torture? But as long as Christians viewed martyrdom as a spiritual promotion, with the approval and reward of God, any policy of persecution was effectively pouring oil on the flames. A weakened and declining Roman Empire ultimately could combat neither the cohesion of the Early Church network, nor the fortitude of believers in the face of persecution.
We in the West cannot pretend to know anything of this, but for our brothers and sisters across the Middle East the wheel has come full circle. The empire is not Roman, but Islamist. The emperor is not Nero or Trajan, but the idolisation of Mohammed as the perfect man of the highest moral excellence, and his life as the "goodly model" which all must follow - literally, step by step. We must let them know that they are not alone.