- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Faith and Courage
We sometimes feel that we are forced to make hard decisions because of our Christian faith. "Should I attend that movie?" "Can I continue my friendship with this person even though he or she involves me in feelings or actions that are inconsistent with my faith?" These sorts of situations, however, pale in comparison to the challenges the early Christians faced. In the reading that follows, an early Christian named Perpetua finds herself in the midst of a tragic dilemma. Her story, because it is so tragic, is quite challenging to the modern reader. But it also offers us a powerful example of how faith can triumph over doubt and express itself in courage.
* * *
The hot, North African sun beat down on Vibia Perpetua as she stood before the Roman proconsul Hilarion. She and five Christian companions were on trial for their lives. Barely twenty-two years old, this young wife and new mother faced a terrible dilemma. She had to decide whether she should continue to profess her faith in Jesus Christ and suffer a horrible death or deny Christ so that she could go home to her husband and family and live to rear her infant son. What events could bring a person to a situation in which she or he would have to make such a terrible decision?
Ever since the reign of Emperor Trajan, around AD 112, simply being a Christian was a capital crime. People who were charged with being a Christian were dragged before a Roman official and asked to affirm, "Caesar is Lord." In the polytheistic Roman world, it was a small matter to offer worship to Caesar by lighting a stick of incense at the altar of Jupiter. The Roman gods and goddesses did not require exclusive loyalty from their devotees, and adding the Emperor to the long list of deities a person served was seen as a simple act of pledging one's allegiance to the Roman state.
Christians, however, saw this matter quite differently than their pagan contemporaries. Since Jesus Christ had exclusive claim on their lives, they refused to share the glory that belonged only to him with any other figure. On this basis, then, the Roman state began publicly executing Christians for treason. Enough Christians were willing to deny Christ in order to spare their own lives that this wave of persecution caused a leadership crisis in the early church. Should a person who renounced Christ be accepted back into the Christian fellowship? Should a pastor who denied Christ be allowed to lead a local congregation or administer the Christian sacraments? Many Christians chose death over compromise, however. Their martyrdom also contributed to the leadership crisis in the early church by robbing it of the service of the most faithful and courageous Christians.
Christians, as the Romans saw them, were people who deserved death. They were regarded as being socially deviant, narrow-minded, and unpatriotic people. When given an opportunity to affirm their loyalty to the Roman state and Emperor, they refused, saying they could worship only the one God. They did not join their fellow Romans in the public festivals dedicated to the Olympian gods. They did not participate in the lewd rites associated with the pagan mystery religions. In fact, no one saw the Christians worship anyone or anything. Their avoidance of the popular holidays and their antipathy toward idols made them seem like atheists to their pagan contemporaries. Thousands of people shouted, "Away with the atheists!" as Christians met with horrible deaths in Roman coliseums.
Terrible rumors were circulating about the private practices of the Christians. Most people believed that they were complete hypocrites who claimed to live morally pure lives yet greeted each other with a "holy kiss" (See Romans 16:16.). While no one had ever seen anything amiss at their "love feasts" (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), people imagined that Christians secretly participated in lurid orgies. There were even rumors that the Christians were cannibals who stole babies and baked their bodies into the ceremonial bread Christians served during their clandestine rites. "Eat the body," they were heard to whisper to one another.
Such people were seen as undermining the very fabric of Roman society. Emperors persecuted them, with greater and lesser degrees of vigor, as a way of protecting their own authority on the one hand and uniting the people against a common foe on the other. Hence, the Christians often became governmental scapegoats for failed policies and failed crops, defeat in battle, and natural disasters because they had turned people's attention away from the traditional gods and goddesses that had supposedly made Rome so strong in the pre-Christian era.
Vibia Perpetua faced her horrible choice because the current Roman emperor, Septimus Severus (145–211), had begun to enforce the old laws against Christianity with renewed vigor. Since Carthage, in North Africa (Perpetua lived in or near Carthage.), was a hot bed of Christian religious devotion, it became a focal point for persecution. The Emperor was convinced that Christianity was an unpatriotic and barbaric religion, and he intended to stamp it out. Perpetua had recently professed Christian faith and was in the process of joining the church when she was arrested in 202. The fact that she was arrested along with four other members of her church membership class ("catechumens") suggests that someone may have followed one of them to or from one of their clandestine instructional meetings and reported the group to the Roman officials.
Perpetua was a literate and cultured young woman, who kept a diary of her days in prison. In it we have a detailed record of her sufferings and her courageous faith.
Soon after her arrest, Perpetua's father, who was not a Christian, came to her and begged her to renounce her new faith so that she might avoid the death sentence that surely awaited her.
"Father," she said to him, "do you see here, for example, this vase, or pitcher, or whatever it is?"
"I see it," he replied.
"Can it be named anything else than what it really is?" she asked.
"No," he said.
"So I also cannot be called anything else than what I am, a Christian," she replied.
Perpetua's words threw her father into a rage, so fierce (she said), that he "came at me as though to tear out my eyes."
What inner resources did Perpetua draw on as she resolved not to deny Christ? We can only imagine, but it seems likely that Jesus' words were a source of direction and comfort to her. Commitment to Christ was rightly seen as a call to self-denial, personal discipleship, and cross bearing. As Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matthew 16:24-25). Jesus' promise, from Matthew 10:32-33, may have resonated in her heart and mind: "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."
The courageous affirmation of Jesus' first disciples found its echo in her actions: "Peter said to him [Jesus], 'Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.' And so said all the disciples" (Matthew 26:35). The apostle Paul's triumphant words may have also encouraged her: "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain" (Philippians 1:21). All Christians who believed in the Resurrection and in everlasting life could embrace the apostle's courageous and hopeful words: "When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this moral body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
"Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
For a few days, Perpetua's father stayed away; and during that time she was baptized. She recalled that she asked nothing from the waters of baptism "except endurance of physical suffering."
During her initial imprisonment, Perpetua suffered severely. "I was terrified," she wrote, "because never before had I experienced such darkness. What a terrible day! Because of crowded conditions and rough treatment by the soldiers the heat was unbearable. My condition was aggravated by my anxiety for my baby." But soon the deacons from her church visited her; and then her brother, who was also a Christian, visited. Perpetua's spirits gradually lifted, though she remained in agony about the plight of her infant son.
Soon her mother was permitted to visit Perpetua, and she brought the child with her. He was weak from hunger, and Perpetua was able to nurse him. As if it were an answer to her prayers, Perpetua was allowed to keep her son with her during the imprisonment; and he regained his strength and vitality through her care. Her brother suggested that Perpetua should ask God for a vision, indicating whether she would be condemned or freed as a result of her upcoming trial. She agreed with his suggestion and prayed to God for direction.
During her prayer Perpetua was given a vision of a long "bronze ladder of extraordinary height" that reached all the way to heaven; it was so narrow that only one person at a time could ascend it. There were weapons attached to the sides of the ladder. Crouching beneath the ladder was "a monstrous dragon who threatened those climbing up and tried to frighten them from [the] ascent." The first person to climb the ladder was Saturus, the deacon who taught her church membership class. He had surrendered himself to the Romans so that he could be with his students in prison; now—in her dream—he led them toward heaven. After he reached the top of the ladder, Saturus called on Perpetua to follow him. "Be careful not to be bitten by the dragon," he warned. Perpetua recalled, "I told him that in the name of Jesus Christ the dragon could not harm me. At this the dragon slowly lowered its head as though afraid of me. Using its head as the first step, I began my ascent." At the top of the ladder she found an "immense garden," where she was met by a "grey-haired man dressed like a shepherd." Surrounded by thousands of people dressed in white robes, he was tending the sheep and making cheese. When he saw Perpetua, he said, "Welcome, my child," and gave her a piece of cheese to eat. As she ate the sweet cheese, the white-robed multitude surrounded her, saying, "Amen." "I awoke," she wrote, "still tasting the sweet cheese. I immediately told my brother about the vision, and we both realized that we were to experience the sufferings of martyrdom. From then on we gave up any hope in this world."
A few days later, rumors circulated through Carthage that the Christians would be brought to trial. Perpetua's father visited her once again, and again he sought to persuade her to worship Caesar and live. "Consider your brothers; consider your mother and your aunt; consider your son who cannot live without you," he urged her. "Give up your stubbornness before you destroy all of us. None of us will be able to speak freely if anything happens to you."
She responded to her father's pleas and tears by trying to comfort him. "Whatever God wants at this tribunal will happen," she told him; "for remember that our power comes not from ourselves but from God."
Her father was "utterly dejected" as he left her.
One day, as the prisoners were eating a meager lunch, guards rushed in and hurried them off to a public hearing. When the word spread throughout Carthage that the Christians were coming to trial, the city forum was filled with a large crowd. As she was brought up the prisoner's platform, Perpetua saw her father elbow his way to the front of the crowd. He had her son in his arms as he grabbed hold of her and tried to drag her from the steps. "Have pity on your son!" he begged.
At this point the Roman proconsul, Hilarion, also addressed Perpetua: "Have pity on your father's grey head; have pity on your infant son; offer sacrifice for the emperor's welfare."
But she answered simply, "I will not."
Hilarion then asked, "Are you a Christian?"
She answered, "I am a Christian."
Once again, her father tried to dissuade her from professing her faith; but now Hilarion ordered him to be removed and beaten with rods for interfering in the hearing.
"My father's injury hurt me as much as if I myself had been beaten," she recalled. "I grieved because of his pathetic old age."
Then Hilarion passed sentence on Perpetua and the other prisoners charged with being Christians—all of whom refused to offer worship to the Emperor. They were condemned to death by wild beasts in the public arena.
After the prisoners had been returned to the jail to await their execution, Perpetua asked one of the church deacons who was not a prisoner to go to her father's house and bring her son to her so that she could nurse him. But her father refused to give up the child. When the deacon reported this to Perpetua, she found that her milk had dried up. She took this to be a sign from God that her son no longer needed her nursing and would be able to survive without her. During the next few days, Perpetua had several more visions that had the effect of confirming her faith in God and encouraging her steadfastness in the course of action she had chosen. The visions seemed to be designed to strengthen her and inform her about what was going to happen to her in the arena. They also had the effect of alleviating her anxiety about her child and family.
Several days later, on March 7, 203, the Christians were taken in chains to the arena to participate in the public "games." It was decided that Perpetua and the other female prisoner, Felicitas (who was her personal slave and friend), should be dispatched by an animal that matched their own gender: They would be attacked by a mad cow. Felicitas had given birth while in prison, only two days prior to her execution. So when the two young women were stripped, wrapped in nets, and led into the arena, the audience recoiled in horror at the sight of two young women modestly trying to cover themselves—the one having so recently given birth that her breasts were dripping with milk.
Guards were quickly sent to retrieve the women and to dress them in loosely fitting gowns. On returning to the arena, the women began to pray as the wild cow tossed Perpetua through the air and trampled on her and then on Felicitas. As they helped each other to their feet, Perpetua spoke words of encouragement: "Remain strong in your faith and love one another. Do not let our excruciating suffering become a stumbling block for you." Leopards, bears, and other fierce animals had been released to kill the other catechumens who were also in the arena.
As the Christians stood together in prayer, the animals refused to attack them; so gladiators were dispatched to finish them off. True to Perpetua's vision, the first to enter heaven by way of the sword was Saturus; Perpetua soon followed him. As the former slave (Felicitas) and her former mistress (Perpetua) stood side by side as sisters in Christ, a guard struck Perpetua with his sword. But the weapon missed its mark. Striking her in the ribs, it failed to inflict a mortal wound. After screaming in pain, Perpetua calmly "took the gladiator's trembling hand [and] and guided it to her throat."
Many of the guards and spectators who viewed the martyrs' courageous sufferings found that begrudged admiration had replaced the hatred they held in their hearts against the Christians. So it was, as the North African church father Tertullian (ca. 200) wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
Perpetua's story was a source of tremendous encouragement to the early church during the next century of persecution and thereafter. Her example as a courageous disciple of Christ and a martyr caused her to be one of the first women to be accorded special acclaim as a "saint." March 7, the date of her death, was celebrated as a day of solemn remembrance and dedication. As superstition gradually mingled with Christian spirituality, young women and men sometimes wore religious medals that bore her image and the inscription, "Saint Perpetua, pray for us."
Excerpted from Faith, Doubt, and Courage in 15 Great People of Faith by John R. Tyson Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.