“I die the king's faithful servant, but God's first.”
― St. Thomas More, before his execution.
When I read about the accounts of martyrdom in the early history of Christianity, one constant theme comes through. A group, holding unpopular views, found itself hated by people who misunderstood and misrepresented their teachings. The response of the government officials was not necessarily aimed at exterminating the individuals. It was aimed at using coercion to bring these people in line with the commonly accepted behavior. The pagan governments did not care about who these Christians worshipped, so long as they were willing to accept the edicts of the governments. Magistrates would try to persuade the Christians to just burn a pinch of incense to the Emperor or some other god which the state saw as a symbol of accepting their authority. If they refused, tortures were used to “persuade” compliance. If that failed, execution of the Christians would follow.
(“To the Lions with the Christians!” An Early Example of the Need for Religious Freedom)
But the problem was this. Christians were perfectly willing to be loyal citizens, obeying the lawfully established magistrates, paying taxes and so on. But they were not willing to give to human beings the authority which belonged to God. This means when a human ruler demanded obedience that exceeded his authority to demand, the Christians felt obligated to put their obedience to God first. In other words, Christians recognized that the state did not have the moral authority to command a Christian to do something they believe to be morally wrong or to forbid them from complying with what their religion compels them to do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this as:
2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:49 (1903; 2313; 450; 1901)
When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.
It is a good balance. On one side, the Christian cannot do what he or she knows is morally wrong. But on the other side, just because the government may overstep their authority on some areas does not give one free rein to disobey everything. Unfortunately, the overstepping Government often considers itself able to do whatever it has the force to compel, and seeks to target those who will not obey them in matters they have no authority over.
(Often the Ultimate Result of Putting Obedience to God First)
Thus, we had the first conflicts with Church and state. The state demanded that they be given the highest level of obedience and any other loyalties that an individual might have would have to be subject to the demands of the state. To disagree would be considered treason. During the centuries, governments have changed, but the basic assumption of the state was that religion had to be subject to the state and whoever would not conform was an enemy. Followers of the Christian faith thus found themselves targeted.
(“To the Lions With the Christians”—Modern Version)
We pride ourselves today for standing up for freedom, and thinking we would never support things that the ancients did. But when you think of it, the fact is that only the types of idols and the means of coercion have changed, while the existence of idols and coercion remains. Nowadays, the idols people demand worship over are causes, not statues. Nowadays, the penalties are lawsuits and prosecutions, not torture and executions. But when you think about it, the attitudes are the same. The state and the populace demands that the civic values be put first, and only those religious beliefs that do not come in conflict with these demands are tolerated. Thus people have no problem with Jews and Muslims refusing to eat pork. They don’t care if Christians believe in the Trinity. But once the beliefs of a religion require a Christian to say “this is wrong, and I will not do it,” and all feigned tolerance for religion disappears. They want them fined, sued and prosecuted just as much as the ancients wanted them tortured and executed.
Of course, they never come out and say such things directly. Usually, they try to say Christians are hateful people. In ancient times, they were “enemies of humanity,” and accused of committing orgies and cannibalism and poisoning the aqueducts—all of them false. In modern times, they’re accused of intolerance and hatred—again, all of them false.
In the Second Century, St. Justin Martyr could write to the emperor of the time (Antonius Pius) and say:
But lest any one think that this is an unreasonable and reckless utterance, we demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve; [or rather, indeed, we ourselves will punish them.] But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgment, but by passion. And every sober-minded person will declare this to be the only fair and equitable adjustment, namely, that the subjects render an unexceptional account of their own life and doctrine; and that, on the other hand, the rulers should give their decision in obedience, not to violence and tyranny, but to piety and philosophy. For thus would both rulers and ruled reap benefit. For even one of the ancients somewhere said, “Unless both rulers and ruled philosophize, it is impossible to make states blessed.” It is our task, therefore, to afford to all an opportunity of inspecting our life and teachings, lest, on account of those who are accustomed to be ignorant of our affairs, we should incur the penalty due to them for mental blindness; and it is your business, when you hear us, to be found, as reason demands, good judges. For if, when ye have learned the truth, you do not what is just, you will be before God without excuse.
[Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” Chapter 3, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 163.]
In other words, St. Justin Martyr called on people to not assume Christians were guilty of allegations simply because they were Christians. He didn’t deny that Christians could do evil (and said those who did could be punished), but he denied that a Christian who lived according to the faith would be guilty of the accusations made.
In modern times, the same situation applies. We too can ask the modern persecutors to investigate the charges of against Christian moral teaching and see if they are motivated by hatred or not. We too can ask that people investigate and follow the truth to avoid having to appear before God without excuse. But like then (he was called St. Justin Martyr for a reason—being flogged and beheaded in AD 165), society prefers to repeat the false charges to justify their hostility. Because if they actually investigated the charges, they might be required to recognize that the accusations were false and perhaps there is more to the Christian belief than people think.
They might learn (like the pagans of Rome eventually did) that once they looked past the false accusations, that the Christian teachings were true, had good justification and needed to be followed by people of good will seeking to do what was right. Then of course, they’d have to change their ways and live according to what was right. That’s probably why people are more willing to believe the false accusations—because it feels easier to attack the messenger than to turn away from sins and resist inclinations which lead one towards sinful acts.
The culture wars of today are ultimately a case of the world demanding that it be obeyed in everything vs. the Christian which says that a government must be obeyed in some things, but not when it goes so far as to infringe on changing what is good and evil. Our history of totalitarian governments of the 20th century are proof that what a government decrees can be evil. Governments have shown that they cannot be trusted to consistently make good decisions in terms of what one must do (consider for example, the Supreme Court defended laws supporting slavery and segregation.
But, like the first centuries that Christianity existed, there are governments who insist that Christians recognize the idols that the state or the society accept but we know are morally wrong. We cannot bow to those idols, whether this is the literal sense or in the sense of accepting laws that try to legitimize what we know is morally wrong.