“FOR MY NAME’S SAKE
‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you… If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know him who sent me… Yes, the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering worship to God. And these things they will do because they have not known the Father nor me. But these things I have spoken to you, that when the time for them has come you may remember that I told you.” (John 15:18-19, 20-21; 16:2-4).
GOD HAS CHOSEN TO RESPECT THE FREE WILLS OF MEN
One of the most convincing signs that free will – the free wills of God, men and the devils – is the basic significant factor in the course of human history is to be seen in the fact that the world has not accepted Jesus and His kingdom without opposition, without violence.
Since God is all powerful it is easy to imagine that He might, if He had so willed, have compelled all men to accept Him and to accept membership in His kingdom. Whether or not this is really possible, the fact is that He has not done so. By a sovereign decision of His own free will God has chosen to respect the free wills of men and of the demonic spirits who have rejected Him and hate men.
THE CONTINUATION OF JESUS HIMSELF IN HUMAN HISTORY
When God became man as Jesus of Nazareth, He subjected Himself to the free wills of men and the devils. He did not overwhelm the devils with His almighty power and prevent them completely from interfering in the affairs of men. Nor did He subjugate the free wills of men and compel them by force to enter His kingdom. Instead He allowed the devils to influence men as they would, and to men He appealed only with the weapons of truth, divine signs and His grace. He left it to the free wills of men to make the choice between sin and redemption, between hating Him and loving Him, between working with Him and working against Him.
IN HIS KINGDOM ON EARTH, AS IN HIMSELF, MEN COULD FIND REDEMPTION
His kingdom on earth, so He said, the continuation of Himself in human history, would be in the same position as He Himself had been. In it, as in Himself, men could find redemption. But they would be free to enter it, to leave it or to reject it; to work with it for the redemption of the world or to work against it to their own condemnation. And thus, through the ignorance, the weakness and the malice of men and devils the kingdom would, like Jesus Himself, be hated and persecuted.
IN ITS INFANCY THE CHURCH OF CHRIST, THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH, WAS PERSECUTED BY THE JEWS
The Church of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth, has been hated and persecuted always. In its infancy it was persecuted by the Jews. The Sanhedrin arrested the Apostles, had them beaten and cast into prison for preaching the message of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. In the year 42 A.D., Herod Agrippa instituted a systematic persecution of the Christians in his land. St James the Greater perished during this persecution and the other Apostles left Jerusalem.
THE PERSECUTION UNDER EMPEROR NERO
As the Christian Church grew throughout the Roman Empire it became subject to persecution by the government, both local and imperial. The first known persecution of the Christians by the imperial government took place during the reign of the Emperor Nero. Nero had ordered the burning of part of the city of Rome. To divert the anger of the populace from himself he blamed the atrocity on the Christians. In the year 64 there was a mass execution of some Christians, who were coated with pitch and burned like torches in the gardens on the Vatican Hill. In the year 67 St Peter was crucified, head downwards, and St Paul was beheaded.
WERE THERE ROMAN LAWS TO KILL CHRISTIANS?
Whether or not Nero passed a law against the profession and practice of Christianity is still a matter of dispute among historians. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 230) , who became a Christian in the year 197, seems to say that Nero had done so. Later historians think that Christians may have been persecuted under already existing laws.
THE REIGN OF DOMITIAN
At any rate, persecution of Christians broke out again during the reign of Domitian (81-96). Flavius Clemens (a relative of Domitian) and his wife and niece suffered during this persecution. Flavius was put to death and his wife and niece were banished.
THERE IS EVIDENCE THAT CHRISTIANS WERE PERSECUTED SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY BELONGED TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
At the beginning of the third century during the reign of Trajan there is evidence that Christians were persecuted simply because they belonged to the Catholic Church. Pliny the Younger had been sent by the emperor to administer the province of Bithynia. There he found that so many of the people had become Christians that a large number of the old pagan temples were no longer functioning. The farmers and merchants who had previously provided animals, birds, grains and wine for the pagan sacrifices were angry at the loss of their business. They complained about it to Pliny. Christians were denounced.
‘I OREDERED THEM TO BE EXECUTED’
Pliny was not quite sure what to do about the situation. Writing to the Emperor Trajan for advice, he said, ‘I do not know what means and limits are to be observed in examining or punishing them… This is the way I have dealt with those who have been denounced to me as Christians: I asked them if they were Christians. If they admitted that they were, I asked them again a second and a third time, threatening them with capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For I felt certain that whatever it was that they professed, their contumacy and inflexible obstinacy obviously demanded punishment.’
‘FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN THAT THEY WERE MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH’
Trajan in his reply set down some norms for handling the situation. The authorities were not to institute a search for Christians on their own initiative. But if anyone was denounced to the magistrates as a Christian, and he admitted it, he was to be punished, ‘but with this restriction: if anyone says that he is not a Christian, and shall actually prove it by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned as being repentant, even though he may have been suspect in the past.’
This letter of Trajan makes it clear that Christians were persecuted for no other reason than that they were members of the Christian Church and, as such, refused to adore the gods of the state. It is clear also that a Christian might escape punishment simply by performing a ritual act of adoration to the pagan gods of Rome. The simplicity with which Christians might escape punishment makes it all the more remarkable that many remained faithful to their belief in Jesus and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The fact that magistrates must punish Christians when they are denounced meant, too, that Christians were at the mercy of the whims or the hate of their non-Christian neighbours.
MARCUS AURELIUS REWARDED THOSE WHO DENOUNCED CHRISTIANS TO THE AUTHORITIES
That the people generally were opposed to Christians is shown by the fact that during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138) a governor in Asia asked the emperor how he should deal with anti-Christian riots. Hadrian and Antonius Pius (138-161) forbade mob action against Christians but reaffirmed the position of Trajan. Marcus Aurelius (161-180), moved by the popular outcry that Christians were responsible for the calamities which afflicted his reign, persecuted Christians more actively and rewarded those who denounced them to the authorities.
EMPEROR SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS, IN TURN, FORBADE ANYONE TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN
In the year 202 A.D. the. Emperor Septimius Severus. Forbade anyone to become a Christian. Maximin the Thracian (235-238) published a general edict for the whole empire aimed against the leaders of the Christian people. His persecution was of short duration, but it established the dangerous precedent of general edicts against Christians.
‘CHRISTIANITY HAD TO BE DESTROYED’
This precedent was taken up vigorously by the Emperor Decius. Decius, in an attempt to reinvigorate within the empire the old Roman ideals and virtues, decided to strengthen the hold of the old Roman gods on the people. Christianity therefore had to be destroyed. By imperial edict it was decreed that on a certain day throughout the empire those suspected of being unwilling to worship the old gods were to appear before the magistrates and show their loyalty by sacrificing to the old gods. Certificates would be issued to all those who showed themselves to be good pagans. For those who refused the ultimate penalty was death.
POPE FABIAN AND BISHOP ALEXANDER WERE EXECUTED FOR REFUSING TO SACRIFICE TO THE PAGAN GODS
The simultaneous carrying out of this edict throughout the empire took the Christians by surprise. Many of them fell victim to panic and performed the pagan ritual act prescribed and were given certificates which saved them from imprisonment and death. But many, even in these trying circumstances, remained faithful to Jesus and refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Some of these such as Pope Fabian and Bishop Alexander at Jerusalem were executed. Other less important figures were thrown into prison and tortured in the attempt to make them give up their membership in the Church.
IN 257 IT WAS DECREED THAT ALL THE CHURCH’S PRIESTS AND BISHOPS WERE TO BE SUMMONED TO FORCE THEM TO LEAVE THE CHURCH AND WORSHIP THE ANCIENT ROMAN GODS INSTEAD OF JESUS CHRIST
Under the Emperor Valerian another general persecution was undertaken by the imperial government. In 257 it was decreed that all the bishops and priests of the Church were to be summoned and made to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The faithful were not to take part in any of the liturgical reunions of the Church. The priests who refused were to be exiled. Cemeteries belonging to Christians and other places of worship were seized by the state. In 258 Valerian decreed that priests who refused to sacrifice to the gods were to be executed. Members of the aristocracy who refused to renounce their membership in the Church were to be exiled and their estates confiscated. When Valerian was taken captive by the Persians, the persecution died down.”
‘MOST HORRIBLE TORTURES IN THE ATTEMPT TO DESTROY THE CHURCH’
It was renewed during the reign of Diocletian in the year 303. Urged on by Galerius, whom he had associated with himself in the government of the empire, Diocletian took measures to stamp out the Christian religion. In his first edict of February 24, 303, Diocletian ordered that Christians were not to assemble for worship, Christian Churches were to be closed, the sacred writings of the Church were to be destroyed. Nobles who refused to renounce Christianity were to lose their rank, free men who refused were to be enslaved, and slaves were to remain forever slaves. A little later Diocletian decreed that those who refused to give up their profession of Christianity were to be put to death. This was the most severe of all the Roman persecutions of the Church. Christians were arrested wholesale throughout the empire and submitted to the most terrible tortures in the attempt to destroy the Church.
IN FACT THE CHURCH HAS ENCOUNTERED THIS HATRED IN EVERY AGE
In the Eastern empire the persecutions lasted until 311. In the Western empire it ceased when Constantine the Great became emperor in 306. In 313 the edict of Milan made Christianity one of the recognised religions of the empire, and the persecution of the Church within the empire ceased.
We have no certain knowledge of the number of Christians who were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, deprived of rank or property, or executed during these persecutions. It is quite probable, however, that the number of those afflicted during the troubled times of the third and fourth centuries far exceeded the number of those who suffered in the first two centuries. In the persecutions under Decius, Valerian and Diocletian it is probable that many thousands suffered. What is more important than the number of those who actually suffered for their faith is the fact that all during the first three centuries of its existence the members of the Kingdom of God on earth had to live constantly in fear of having to suffer for their adherence to Jesus Christ. As Jesus had suffered for them, so they had to be ready to suffer for Him.
Though the Church gained the right to a peaceful existence within the empire by the edict of Milan [under Emperor Constantine], this did not mean that the world which hated Christ ceased to hate His Church. In fact the Church has encountered this hatred in every age.
During the Roman persecutions many Christians had fled from the empire to Persia. There, because of the hostility of the Persians to the empire, they had been welcomed. But when peace was established between the Church and the empire, the attitude of the Persians changed. From 410 on, the Persians began to persecute the Church.
From the end of the seventh century and on, the Moslems, followers of Mohammed, made it difficult for Christians to practise their faith in all the lands which they conquered, chiefly the lands on the southern side of the Mediterranean basin.
We must remember also that many of the missionaries who carried the Gospel to the pagan lands and many of their first converts had to suffer at the hands of their non-Christian countrymen.
Violent opposition to the Kingdom of God, such as was manifested by imperial Rome, has occurred every so often during the centuries from Jesus to the present time. Sometimes it was due to a hatred of Jesus and His followers. For this reason the Persians harassed Christians in the fifth and sixth centuries. In the seventh century twenty thousand Christians were put to death by Dhu Nuwas in Yemen. In the ninth century the Muslims attacked Christians in Egypt. In the twelfth century the Albigensians in Languedoc attacked the Catholics there. In the twentieth century communist foes in Russia, Mexico, Spain, China, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Jugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania have imprisoned or killed bishops and priests and laymen.
BISHOPS, PRIESTS AND LAYMEN IMPRISONED OR KILLED
At other times the Kingdom of God has been subject to persecution even by those who profess to follow Jesus and be members of His kingdom. Thus in the eighth century the emperors at Constantinople, rejecting the use of images in public worship, deposed, arrested and in some cases put to death bishops and priests who refused to accept the imperial iconoclasm. In the sixteenth century, when the so-called Protestant Reform of the Church took place, Catholics, members of the true Kingdom of God, were subjected to harassment in the kingdoms or principalities where Protestantism triumphed. The true faith was outlawed, priests were expelled or killed for administering the sacraments of the Church. Active opposition to the true Church on the part of Protestant states has continued down to the present, though with lessening severity.
Frequently, too (one is tempted to say, almost constantly), relations between earthly governments and the Church of God have been strained, so severely strained as to prevent the Church from acting freely in its mission to save mankind. Thus, in the fourth century some of the emperors favoured the Arian heresy against the true faith. In the eighth, as we have already mentioned, the emperors sought to promote iconoclasm. From the Middle Ages down to recent times many Christian rulers attempted to gain control of the Church by claiming for themselves the right to nominate bishops in the Church. Popes Gregory VII, Innocent III and Boniface VIII had to struggle to prevent the sovereigns of Europe from seizing control of the Church. The energy displayed by the Papacy in repulsing these attempts led to opposition to the Papacy. This, in part, accounts for the eagerness with which the Germanic princes of northern Europe gave up their allegiance to the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. By joining the Protestant revolt they were enabled to gain control of religion in their own territories. Opposition to the Papacy also accounts in part for the rise of Gallicanism in France and Josephism in Austria and the Netherlands.
DENYING THE EXISTENCE OF GOD ALTOGETHER
Opposition to the Church has been found also in the world of thought and intellect. In the time of imperial Rome the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote against the Church. In modern times the philosophers of subjectivism, idealism, positivism, materialism, and their intellectual children, the socialists and the communists, have attacked the Church. By denying the existence of God or the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, they have attempted to destroy those fundamental beliefs of mankind which provide a rational basis for religion.
It should be mentioned also that the Kingdom of God in its growing life in the world has experienced a constant succession of growing pains in the form of heresies, deviations from the true content of the divine revelation which Jesus gave to mankind. From the beginning until now the minds of some men, confronted with the profound mysteries which God has revealed, have gone astray. Refusing to listen to the voice of God’s appointed heralds, the Apostles and their successors (the Pope and Bishops of the Church), they have invented doctrines of their own and presented them to the world as God’s message to men.
In this world, then, the Kingdom of God is as Jesus had said it would be, a kingdom persecuted by men, its members hailed before kings and princes and put to death for their faith in Christ, sometimes even put to death in His Name.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959 (Headings in capital letters added afterwards)