Candida Moss, a professor of early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, says that the persecution of the early church in the Roman Empire wasn’t so much a persecution of Christians just because they were Christians. This did happen, but only for about 10 years and then only intermittently. For the most part, she says, it was because they violated laws that weren’t targeted at Christians but were for all Roman citizens, but nonetheless were laws that Christians because of their faith couldn’t obey. So, for instance, the Emperor Diocletian issued an edict that all Romans make a public sacrifice to the Roman gods. This wasn’t given targeting Christians, but in that polytheistic pagan nation was seen as being like a mandatory “pledge of allegiance”. Obviously, though, followers of Jesus couldn’t do that and they were executed—but for treason, not, in the eyes of the state, for religion. They could be Christians as long as they were loyal to the state i.e. demonstrated that they were committed to the “us” of the Roman Empire. But the early Christians saw that their allegiance to Christ prevented them from worshiping the Roman gods, and they wouldn’t conform. Neither would they swear oaths to the state, join the military or participate in other parts of Roman society. By not conforming to the things that made up the “us” of Roman society, they were persecuted and martyred. In other words, it was OK to be a Christian; it was not OK to desert “us”.
Author Brian McLaren says that we all live between these two dangers: “The Other” and “Us”. If we defend ourselves against or attack the Other, we gain credibility with Us—we show that we are loyal, supportive members of Us. But the greater, though more subtle, danger, is from the Us. If we do not conform to the behaviors, beliefs, and mores of the Us, we may lose their approval. We will be labeled a traitor or heretic or unorthodox or liberal or apostate. We’ll be shunned, literally. Even worse is if we dare to defend and humanize the Other, particularly when the Other is identified as the Enemy of Us. When that happens, we lose more than the approval of Us—we lose their protection. And they become our persecutors.
This is exactly what happened to Jesus. Jesus really wasn’t that offensive to the Romans—they didn’t realize how subversive his teaching about the Kingdom of God was—but he was deeply offensive to the official Us of Israel. He didn’t conform to all the things like the purity laws and Sabbath-keeping that defined a good Israelite. Even worse, he associated with the Other by eating with tax collectors and Sinners and refusing to go along with plans of armed rebellion against the Romans.
And for that, the Us—the Jewish Temple leaders—arranged to have him crucified by the Other—the Romans. Ironically, the charge was treason. The Temple leaders claimed that Jesus was a traitor to Rome, but in reality the reason they wanted him killed was because he was a traitor to Us. So the Us joined with the Other and crucified him.
Jesus’ command to his followers to love the Enemy is treasonous, make no mistake about it. It’s treasonous to the things that define Us. That is, unless we let one thing and one thing only define us, and that is love. Not just our love for God, but our love for others, all others, even those everyone else considers to be the Other.
It’s right and proper for the state to honor those who died defending Us, and I hope you took time to do that. But maybe Christians around the world can take time to honor those Christians who died defending the Other.