|Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902)
oil on canvas, 1897
National Museum Warsaw
Originally published as a guest blog at Millennialstar
Tertullian was born the son of a Roman Centurion in Carthage around 150 AD. As a member of a higher social class, he received an excellent education and was trained as a lawyer. He indulged in all the trappings of his day, including the pastime of watching gladiatorial combat and games where criminals were tortured or eaten alive by wild animals. Historian Roger Pearse, curator of the Tertullian project, said:
. . . among the sights he saw, was that of Christians being executed this way. He was struck with the courage with which stupid and contemptible slave men and little slave girls faced a hideous death, against all nature; and after investigating, became a Christian himself . . .
Tertullian said the blood of Christian martyrs was the seed of the church.** It certainly seems to be the precipitant that converted him to Christianity from the paganism of his fathers. For many early Christians, martyrdom was the ultimate proof of their faith. Whether martyrdom was sought out or forced on them, the courage demonstrated by thousands of Christians in the face of unspeakable tortures has fortified the faith of Christians for two thousand years.
But, as Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, opportunities for martyrdom diminished—much to the chagrin of some.*** Christianity was suddenly an asset rather than a liability. Although the centuries certainly provided opportunities for Christians to die for their beliefs, it was never on the scale seen in Tertullian’s day.
Mormons have had more than their share of opportunities for persecution and martyrdom in our short history. As with the blood of the early Christians, the blood of latter-day saints has been the seed of the Mormon Church. We therefore identify better than many Christians with the idea of martyrdom for the faith.
Thankfully, opportunities to die for our faith have all but disappeared in Western society.**** However, there are now ample opportunities for Mormons and other Christian communities to be united like never before in a new kind of virtual martyrdom. This metaphorical martyrdom comes swiftly if any dares to publicly profess the tenets of the faith that have been firmly entrenched for six thousand years. To describe sexual immorality as sin is to instantly become socially marginalized and vilified as worst example of humanity imaginable. The calls for christianos ad leones are immediate and sustained from intolerant activists clamoring for tolerance, from the secular media, and from the ever-present arbiters of political correctness. Labelled intolerant or hater, those unwilling to compromise God’s standards are sent to their social death like recidivist criminals that are beyond reform.
Having seen so many examples of this new type of martyrdom, it’s hard not to be intimidated. Minding your own business is safer and easier than exposing yourself to the fury. The live and let live mantra rolls off the tongue easier today than ever before. But there is no safe place as we watch the tide slowly erode the small piece of ground on which the church has always resided. To stand down is to serve other gods, as was so eloquently taught by Elder Dallin H. Oaks.
Ever courageous and uncompromising, Paul said: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). He refused to stand down—even knowing the price he would pay. On the eve of his final arraignment before Nero, he wrote to Timothy from prison saying “all that live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).” He would make his case before Nero, but knew what fate awaited him (see 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
I would never try to minimize the heavy price paid by the martyrs of our faith by equating it with the hateful ridicule the secular world heaps upon vocal believers today. But there are parallels, and they are instructive. We would do well to ask ourselves if we have the same faith and courage of the martyrs of old. President Thomas S. Monson’s advice in 1986 seems very pertinent to us today:
Of course we will face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle. Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval. Courage becomes a living and an attractive virtue when it is regarded not only as a willingness to die manfully, but as the determination to live decently.
As we successfully embody the principles of the gospel and outwardly live decently it gets noticed. We must therefore be prepared for the persecution it spawns to test the mettle of our faith.
* This picture is a depiction of Nero watching a Christian woman killed in a re-enactment of the Greek myth of Dirce, who was killed by being tied to the horns of a bull. In the First Epistle Clement to the Corinthians, Clement refers to Christian women martyred for their faith as Dircae: “Through envy, those women, the Danaids and Dircae, being persecuted, after they had suffered terrible and unspeakable torments, finished the course of their faith with steadfastness, and though weak in body, received a noble reward (chapter VI). “
**”The blood of Christians is seed” (Apologeticum, chapter 50)
*** During the 5th Crusade, St Francis of Assisi went to the Egypt and met with the Sultan el-Kamil (the nephew of Saladin) during a ceasefire at the siege of Damietta. Francis intentionally crossed Saracen lines into what was thought to be certain death, where he was taken to the Sultan, and warmly received. Several days later, he left the Sultan thoroughly charmed, but unconverted. Francis’ quest for martyrdom was unsuccessful and the battle resumed.
**** This article suggests that there are still thousands of Christians killed for their faith worldwide each year.