How to Respond When “Christian” Has Become a Bad Word – A Few Reminders from the Early Church to Today

On Tuesday, May 13, 2014, around eight-hundred attendees convened for the annual gathering organized as the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. On this particular occasion, the audience heard the following from speaker Dr. Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Professor George’s words have since reverberated throughout the Catholic Church in the United States: “‘My message is a somber one,’ George said, warning that ‘the days of acceptable Christianity are over, the days of comfortable Catholicism are past’ as society finds it increasingly objectionable for people of faith to profess the Church’s teachings on human dignity, life, marriage, and the family. While a Catholic ‘can be safe’ by remaining ‘completely silent’ about the teachings of the faith, George warned, ‘a Catholic who makes it clear that he or she is not afraid of the Gospel is in for a rough go.’” Lest anyone be drawn to suspect that Professor George’s words were based on mere sentiment or perception, studies have shown that identifying with certain faith traditions, including Catholicism, can verifiably put someone at risk for not attaining – let alone maintaining – employment prospects. Are we in an era in which “Christian” is a bad word? Well, perhaps we have been for nearly two-thousand years.

In order to recall other times in history when the term “Christian” has had negative connotations, we reliably – and with good reason – look to the days of the Roman Empire to understand the widespread persecution of the early Catholic Church. To provide a very basic review: approximately three decades following Jesus’ earthly ministry, which concluded around AD 33, Saints Peter and Paul – after they had experienced numerous other trials – brought the faith as far as Rome. Peter and Paul ended up giving their lives rather than deny Christ (cf. Matthew 10:32-33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26) – they were martyred circa AD 64, in the midst of the ruthless Emperor Nero unleashing an Empire-wide persecution, blaming Christians for a fire that had gutted the city. It was dangerous to live as a Christian over the next nearly three-hundred years. In fact, many thousands of pages have been written about the onslaught of deadly harassment that Christians experienced until the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 permitted the free exercise of religion. There were specific micro-periods of extremely harsh persecution over the course of these nearly three hundred years, and some emperors were admittedly more brutal than others. However, imagine, even if only for a moment, that you were born and lived your entire life within the confines of this epoch spanning approximately three-hundred years, and your faith was never publicly welcomed during your lifetime. Throughout “your world,” the expansive Roman Empire, your faith was not authorized. If you professed faith in Jesus Christ, you were an outlaw. Unfortunately, many Christians were fearful for their lives at most, or their employment or social status at least, and fell away from their faith when besieged by the menace of persecution, while many others were martyred and remain heroic figures within the community of saints.

What are some of the factors that contributed to Christians being looked down upon by so many powerful realms of the leadership of the Roman Empire? In effect, in Ancient Rome, Christians spoke up (in no specified order):

  • against the worship of the emperor and other false idols;
  • against sexual immorality (fornication, adultery, prostitution, pedophilia – essentially, any sexual acts between anyone other than a husband and wife);
  • in support of the dignity of women, including prostitutes whom they called to conversion;
  • in support of young children, especially babies and orphans, during a time when human life – even the most innocent – was not necessarily celebrated, let alone eligible for human rights;
  • in support of the dignity of those living under the callousness of slavery;
  • for the poor, the sick, and the otherwise marginalized;
  • against unnecessary military engagement; etc.

Basically, if Christian morality went against prevailing societal norms that were counter to the Gospel, the cultural elites and prominent social potentates of the day saw Christians as prudish and peculiar. (Reflecting on modern times, is any of this beginning to sound familiar?) Still, the Church grew and spread. Christianity transitioned from being an alien, offensive, underground faith to rising into even the upper classes. Roman citizens were not blind to reason, and they noticed that Christianity could not be stamped out, and that their extent of resolve would not have been possible without abiding love. If the Christian message were one of hatred, terrorization, and/or animosity, it probably would have been extinguished long ago. They noticed that Christians lived… differently.

It is a historical reality that it has never been easy to live the Christian life over the course of the last nearly two-thousand years. Beyond the days of the Roman Empire, even during the centuries of “Christendom” spanning the Middle Ages in particular, when one could live as a Christian openly, various men and women who have since been canonized faced persecution by worldly-minded figures who had wiggled their way into ecclesial leadership roles. We need but look at exemplars such as Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Teresa of Ávila, among many others, who faced hardships from secularly-oriented segments of the Church who “[were] thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23).

But have not some within the Catholic Church been the source of violent discord and the suppression of social advancement in the name of God? Unfortunately, yes. A deluded individual would deny that some within the Church have acted immorally under the guise of the Gospel, whether when surveying such episodes as abuses during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Galileo trial, among other occasions. (However, each of these situations must be considered carefully, to be sure to fend off exaggerations and inaccurate depictions. Hence, every person of good will would do well to comprehend this situation in order to learn from the drawbacks of history and thus serve the kingdom of God in the process.) Nevertheless, we must offer the direct concession that those responsible for these offenses are not canonized, nor does the Church consider them in such a light. This is in keeping with Jesus’ stark affirmation in Matthew 7:21-23: “‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

Again, it has never been “easy” to be a Christian. In modern times, Christians who follow Christ’s teachings faithfully and go against the grain of society in the process are often pitied at best or disdained at worst, treated with a palpable combination of suspicion, derision, and disregard. This, despite how, speaking for Catholicism in particular, followers of Christ gave us the concept of the institutional university, widespread literacy, international human rights,  agricultural innovation, scientific advancements, and hospitals, not to mention orphanages, soup kitchens, and multiple other charitable endeavors. (The Church is even responsible for the first functional clock, lowercase writing, and champagne – make sure to be thankful for that which has brought us joy in our lives!)

In these challenging times, we must continue to do that which we have done for going on two-thousand years: to love. That is the only way to validate matters of faith and draw others to the truth of Christ. It is possible to love someone while disagreeing with them over any category of tenets. However, make sure that this love is truly Christian: gentle, patient, unqualified, and with others’ lives and best interests at heart – not combative, defensive, or exclusive (in the true sense of the term). In the wake of the horrendous massacre committed in Orlando on June 12, 2016, the Catholic Church responded with the force of charity, as did other Christian groups and organizations, such as the volunteer efforts famously extended by Chick-fil-A, who looked beyond their corporate policy and opened a location on a Sunday, whereas they would otherwise be closed. This took place in the midst of Christians somehow being broadly blamed as being complicit in the tragedy. Wonders never cease. Yet, we love anyway.

Returning to the initial point – what is the Christian response when those who profess Christian faith are unwelcomed by broader society? To love anyway: to love God and neighbor. By “love,” we must recall that we love God first and our neighbor subsequently, by extension (cf. Mark 12:30-31). After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Of course, we cannot forget that the will of God must remain paramount in our decision-marking framework: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we wish to transform society for the better, whether living under conditions as harsh as the Roman Empire (let us recall that the twentieth century was much deadlier for Christians [and the twenty-first century does not look any better]), we must continuously love initially and unconditionally, keeping in mind Christ’s exquisite new commandment that has led others to recognize his divinity over the last nearly two-thousand years, providing a steadfastly refreshing Christian presence in the world: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Lead others to know that you are indeed his disciple.

Justin McClain

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Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their three children (John-Paul, Mary Christine, and Thérèse) live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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