We must resist conformity to the age if we are to be authentic Christians.
Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:2
We may be inclined to believe that the age of martyrdom is an age of the past. When we think of Christian martyrs, we are likely to conjure images of the persecutions that took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries. During the reign of the Roman emperor Decius, for example, an 18-month, empire-wide campaign led to the slaughter of some 3,000 to 3,500 Christians in the year 250 (as estimated by the English ecclesiastical historian WHC Frend).
And yet the truth is perhaps more difficult to bear, for the 20th and 21st centuries have produced more Christian martyrs than any other time in the history of our great faith.
How should we respond? What should we do in the face of such evil? We must answer as the saints have always answered. We must counter violence and terror with love and forgiveness. It is our way.
We have seen in recent years incredible expressions of mercy and absolution. Look, for example, to Beshir Kamel, the brother of two of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in 2015. Shortly after his brothers’ murder, he appeared on television and said,
Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us.
This is the Gospel: unmistakably so. Only the grace of Christ could transform a man, not only to say such a thing at such a time, but to mean it.
A perennial temptation for Christians is to be conformed to the age. It’s very easy to slowly adopt this or that aspect of the culture around us, without considering the implication that this or that practice has on our faith. Just as our forefathers and saintly mothers refused to offer incense to Roman gods or died protecting their chastity, there are things today for which we should be willing to die rather than collaborate. We must resist conformity to the age.
Such resistance may seem futile or lonely. We might long for a past age when we think things may have been easier. For his part St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) strongly condemns such dissolution. He writes,
Is there any affliction now endured by mankind that was not endured by our fathers before us? What sufferings of ours even bear comparison with what we know of their sufferings? And yet you hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were so much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors -– would we not still hear them complaining? You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.
Even when Jesus, our Lord and God, walked the earth, people turned away from him. Even then there were those who could not understand the mystery of the Eucharist, the need for Jesus to die to redeem us, or the teaching that disciples must deny themselves and take up the cross as Christ did.
The persecuted Christian is the one who continues to announce the Gospel of Jesus with joy and candor, despite hardship. When the world sneers or turns away, the Christian response is compassion and perseverance. The grace of Jesus gives us the resolve to cling to the truth of the Lord’s teaching.
To continue to cling to the Gospel, we must be renewed. We must study the Holy Scriptures. We must read the stories of saints. We must form groups for theological thinking and discussion. We must build friendships where conversations can be had about the deepest, dearest things. We must imitate the creativity of our forebears so that we can be the salt of the earth and light for the world.
When the television host interviewing Beshir Kamel gave him the opportunity to pray for his brothers’ killers, Kamel prayed, “Dear God, please open their eyes to be saved and to quit their ignorance and the wrong teachings they were taught.”
May the Lord Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—transform the world by the renewal of minds.
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