“[Christian faith] is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric; rather, [it] is greatest when it is hated by the world.”
The above quote is from a letter by an early Christian leader named Ignatius to the church in Rome sometime in the early 100s. Ignatius, who was probably discipled by John, wrote those words on his way to martyrdom by wild beasts at the Coliseum. He wrote six other letters to churches across the Empire, one of which has an interesting distinction. It includes the first known use of the word “catholic” to describe the entire church. Keep in mind that this is long before the 16th century Protestant/Catholic split. The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word that literally means “according to the whole”. “Catholic,” in its proper, ecumenical sense, refers to the whole church, not just the Roman Catholic member.
Ignatius’ letter – and the New Testament as a whole – is quite clear that suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life. In fact, as Ignatius indicates, being hated is actually a Christian trademark this side of Kingdom come. It is a common misunderstanding that Jesus suffered on the cross so that those who believe in him don’t have to. A Coptic Orthodox theologian named Matthew the Poor offers some clarity on this point. Whereas pain may once have been equated with punishment, “now, if we are in Christ, we can undergo suffering on the level of His suffering, not as a just consequence of sin, but as a participation in the suffering of love, self-sacrifice, and redemption. Pain…has in Christ become a gift.” In Christ, the Christian is not free from suffering. But she is free from meaningless suffering. Suffering is now a means of the greatest gift of all: unity with God and with others; union with the whole. Catholicism.
Last week I received a newsletter update from a seminary that offers distance education for students in a Middle Eastern country rife with persecution. It shared that recently, while one of its students was taking a theological exam, her home was raided and her husband arrested on account of their faith. It’s hard not to be humbled by the stark comparison with my own circumstances as a theological educator: instead of worrying about whether my students will be imprisoned in the middle of their studies, I’m complaining about marking late assessments or meeting administrative deadlines while trying to earn academic points through publication quotas. The contrast provokes a question that has haunted me throughout my Christian journey: what do we do when our Christian life is marked by a distinct lack of persecution?
I still haven’t arrived at a completely satisfying answer to this question. I wonder though, if one way of beginning to formulate an answer is by acknowledging that it’s not a personal question as much as an ecclesiological one. It’s been suggested to me that one response is to find out where the church is suffering and to suffer with it. A few organisations – like Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs – offer resources and information to at least begin praying to this end. Perhaps such prayer will prepare those of us in in an increasingly secular West – one in which the church is haemorrhaging its cultural and institutional position with each passing year – not to try to salvage our waning influence through either effective lobbying or persuasive apologetics (the “persuasive rhetoric” route that Ignatius dismisses above), but instead to embrace our potential place among our siblings, and at the foot of the cross.