In recent days my students in my Bible courses have had to endure numerous references to my children as I’ve used them as examples: Just like I speak to little Hans and Miriam in simple ways they can understand, and avoid topics for which they’re not ready, so God does with the human race. He accommodates his revelation to us, brings us along slowly.
And so I was caught up short when I overheard my children hearing these horrors: “His flesh was pierced with iron hooks, he was bound upon a red-hot gridiron and roasted, and he was cast into a prison and laid on a floor strewn with broken pottery.” A film by James Wan? Darren Lynn Bousman? Eli Roth? Hardly. My wife was reading the details of St. Vincent of Saragossa’s torture from Lives of the Saints.
The conventional wisdom I once embraced narrates Western religious history along these lines: In the middle ages, the Catholic Church came to dominate every aspect of life, a monolithic medieval monstrosity committed to cultural regression and intellectual ignorance for the sake of its own power. But Martin Luther rose up and broke its stranglehold on civilization, ultimately ushering in an age of progress and Enlightenment. It is a tale told by the cultural victors. Fortunately, Christians of various confessions and secularists of good will nowadays recognize it’s not nearly that simple. But the popular mind maintains the myth.
Certainly, Catholic Christians clergy and lay—as well as Orthodox and Protestant Christians—have committed grave sins, indeed crimes, for which lamentation, repentance, and reparation are not only appropriate but required. But there is another way of narrating the history of Christianity, a way in which the Church is often on the defensive, on the run, “‘Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war.” Christendom has had a hard time holding its borders: Many areas in the Islamic world were once Christian, converted at the point of the sword, and the Muslim conquests predated any Crusades. And within its borders, it often suffered more from supposedly Christian monarchs than the menace of the marauders without. Men loyal to Henry II murdered Thomas Becket upon construing certain of the king’s words as a command. Fredrick Barbarossa backed no less than four antipopes against Alexander III.
And then there is Henry VIII, whose break with Rome made real, papacy-loyal Catholicism effectively illegal in England for decades and set Christian upon Christian in an orgy of torture and martyrdom. Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were beheaded, while the Carthusian John Houghton was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Cut down while still alive, his executioners endeavored with difficulty to cut out his heart, precipitating his legendary cry, “O Jesus! What will you do with my heart?” During her brief reign, the Catholic Bloody Mary Tudor returned the favor, consuming many in her fires of faith. Under Elizabeth I, many Jesuits were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. For sheltering priests, Margaret Clitherow was crushed to death with heavy rocks on Good Friday of 1586 in York in an act of barbarity that Queen Elizabeth herself condemned. There was suffering apart from torture and execution: Catholic recusants who did not wish to attend Church of England services were made to pay confiscatory fines that often meant their ruin.
For me, learning deeply about Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and becoming Catholic involved a revelation of sorts, a conversion of the imagination: Christianity is a martyr’s faith, and we Christians all belong to a martyr Church. This is not just a matter of history, in which we see Christians murdered by Romans, barbarians, Muslims, other Christians, or French or Russian revolutionaries. It is a matter of theology: Christ is the Church, as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians, the Head of the Body, and Christ died willingly, suffering the extreme penalty for us at the hands of religion and state. Christ was a martyr, the Church is a martyr Church.
I write these things because I have encountered much fear, loathing, and whining lately from certain Christians regarding the situation of Christians in the West, as Christians are now losing face, position, and livelihoods for expressing traditional opinions on moral matters of concern to the wider society.
What do we expect? As Christ was a martyr, all Christians belong to a martyr Church. We have periods of relative peace, but if we are nearing the end of one, we should not be surprised to find ourselves under pressure. And so certain Anglican and Catholic bishops in the Anglophone world have taken to speaking of persecution and even martyrdom, most famously Cardinal George in 2010, when he said “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”
We do have cause to be uneasy, as history and recent events have shown. But we Christians must react as the martyr Christ would have us react: in charity, in love, praying for those who would persecute us. Certainly we are entitled to speak and write in our defense, like the great apologists of old, and divine charity demands we strive for real justice on earth regarding the dignity of the human person and the human family. Whining, vilification, and paranoia, however, are not the stuff of Christ or the Christian.
For we will share eternity with those who would persecute us, God willing, and that should be our will as well. As St. Edmund Campion, a Jesuit later hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, wrote to Elizabeth’s Privy Council:
If these my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almightie God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.
Leroy Huizenga is Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
The Myth and Reality of “I’ll Die in My Bed”: What Cardinal Francis George Really Said
St. Edmund Campion’s “Challenge to the Privy Council” (“Campion’s Brag”)
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