In a lull in a second year philosophy class, I poured out my worry to our lecturer. We had been assigned a text which championed being a ‘Christian intellectual’ over an ‘ideologue’, and I recognised myself on the wrong side of that popularity contest. From what I recall, the ‘Christian intellectual’ was characterised as someone who carefully considered ideas. Someone who was slow to speak and judge, quick to listen. A thinker. The ideologue was her brash country cousin. Holding firmly to ideas, but unable to explain them, the ideologue blustered and fumed and decreed and denounced. It is so and don’t be so impertinent as to ask why.
I poured out my fear that at my worst, I am exactly this kind of person. Confidently wading in to discussion on all manner of topics and prone to fits of temper if disagreed with. Someone unable to rationally explain my position or appreciate the nuances of the other person’s argument. I still think about this, years later.
In a funny way, considering the battle I had with philosophical thinking, this little lesson from second year is one of my defining moments of college. I still long to be someone who is more controlled, less annoyed by dissent. Yet in my worst moments I am still a hot-headed, spluttery mess. The danger of college is that I have four years of fancy terminology and impressive-sounding jargon under my belt. The danger of a journalism degree is that I have thought more than some about how to wield words as weapons.
At the moment I am thinking a lot about martyrdom for an assignment. I read a book in the holidays that incited me to the kind of intense frustration that boils up every now and then. So that I ‘humph’ and highlight and mentally eviscerate the writer’s position. The book in question is called ‘The myth of persecution: how early Christians invented a story of martyrdom’. It’s a provocative title, and a provocative read. Today I finally transcribed my earmarked quotes, and I felt the familiar sense of outrage bubbling away as I typed. I recognised something else as well, the feeling that often lurks beneath the hot-headedness. Fear. If it is true that anger often masks hurt or fear, I have surely been afraid of what the author’s position does to my foundations.
Her basic thesis is that martyrdom isn’t unique to Christianity, wasn’t nearly as pervasive as the ‘modern martyrdom myth’ would lead us to believe, and provides no paradigm of self-sacrifice to emulate. Them’s fighting words, for sure. And yet today I found myself not wanting to die on any of those hills, pardon the pun.
When I first thought about critiquing her, it concerned the snarky tone of her language, the lack of footnotes coupled with confident generalising, the seemingly deliberate uncharitable treatment of ancient historical sources. But today, none of that mattered much. When I read over her view, I felt mainly sadness. In her work, the de-mythologising of martyrdom brings the entire notion crashing down. And in my anger I failed to see that church history isn’t where our understanding of self-sacrifice comes from.
What is ultimately obscured in her writing, is Jesus. He is mentioned, as exemplar, but the significance of his death is completely overlooked. Notions of emulating self-sacrifice to gain heavenly rewards loom large, and the work of Christ in his self-sacrifice is shunted to the sidelines. When she talks of judgment, there is a devastating insight into her understanding of what Christianity teaches.
“The martyrs do not have to sleep in the ground or wait in purgatory or some other shadowy realm for the second coming. They are already comfortably ensconced in the heavenly court. Their rewards are greater, though, for they avoid eschatological judgment. Their fate has already been positively decided.”
“If Christians in general were confident that they would fare well at the heavenly tribunal, martyrs were sure of it. For the martyrs, the ordinary rules of judgment did not apply. Not only did they go directly to heaven at their deaths; they escaped judgment altogether. To paraphrase the words of Polycarp, that’s not bad for an hour’s work.”
I don’t know about you, but it hurts me to read those words, and in my initial anger I mistook what was actually wrong. Today the untruth of those words actually made my heart soar, because of how desperately inadequate such a truth would be. The glorious implication of the gospel is that the notion of ones fate being positively decided before death is not a verdict unique to a subcategory of believers. The “ordinary rules of judgment” have already been applied to the one, who stood in place of the many, so that for Jesus’ more-than-an-hour’s work, mine is the confident certainty of a judgment already handed down.
I am still coming to grips with the staggering beauty of that truth. Jesus, in place of sinners, to secure for them an inheritance they could never hope to see otherwise. A favourable judgment from the one who judges justly, who justifies the ungodly, who accepts Jesus in my place. For those ‘in Christ’ – followers of Jesus, this verdict is yours. Can you wrap your head around it?
It deflates my self-important anger, utterly. It wipes away any notion of superiority, or righteous-indignation. Jesus bore my sin in his body on the tree. My response can only be gratitude, can’t it? I am so thankful for such a Saviour. I am more thankful in light of every lacking conception of what self-sacrifice means. So that the world can have its notions of noble death, and veneration of people who died for a cause, or an idea, or a love. Jesus died for people who were marching inexorably to destruction without him. He is the reward I long for, his the work which secures it, mine the sin that necessitated it. His is the glory.
And so I think about this college journey, 3 and a half years in. I think about how much there is to learn, how very much more there is of me to come under the Lordship of Christ, as he continues to change my heart. And I pray that even on this blog, where I say what I like without footnotes or right of reply, I may be faithful to him. To the Saviour who bought me, already, so that it is a done deal. So that I don’t need to win anything, by trying to emulate him. And yet who bids me come, follow. And who will not leave me the same.
 C. Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 209-210.