Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Christianity and Citizenship

For the first three hundred years Christianity was a religion without a country, and Christians were at the mercy of the laws of whatever state in which they happened to be. Since Christianity was promulgated primarily within the bounds of the Roman Empire, the attitude and policy of the reigning Emperor was a matter of crucial importance. Treatment of Christians ranged from being casually ignored to being systematically persecuted. It varied from the cruel and capricious treatment by Nero in the first century to the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion under Constantine in the fourth century.

Some Emperors viewed Christianity as a threat to the government and Roman culture. Under these Emperors Christians were persecuted, but the persecution never lasted long enough, nor was it systematic enough, to destroy this new faith. The historian, T.R. Glover, wrote that the Christian "out-lived" the pagan, "out-died", and "out-thought" him. (Glover, T.R., The Jesus of History, Published 1917, pg 200) The Christians made a place in history that was unequalled even by the Emperor. People today name their sons Stephen, Peter, and Paul, and they name their dogs Nero.

The enemies of Christianity in the first three centuries put out false and incriminating reports, each of which were designed to vilify the faith in the eyes of the community and the country. For example, they quoted words from the ritual of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood which is shed for you and for many," and asserted in early tabloid style that "They meet at night. They kill their own. They drink blood and eat human flesh." Scary!

The truth of the matter is that the early Christians were too good for the culture in which they existed. One of the most common sins of society, old and new, is that we persecute with equal vigor those who live above and those who live below the accepted norm. We tend to treat our criminals and our saints alike. Criminals live below our common moral standard, and saints live lives above it, but both are considered to have sinned againt convention. The fact that Christians are seldom persecuted harassed, or rejected today may well be an indictment. Can we say with a straight face that our social norm would be endorsed and embraced by our Master? That thought, like Banquo's Ghost, should hover over all our meetings.

Perhaps the most damaging charge by the enemies of the early faith was that Christians did not make good citizens because they were a threat to the state, the culture, and the accepted religions of the realm. To some of this general charge Christians had to plead guilty. Christians refused to join the army, and they solicited others to not join. They boycotted civic activities that were cruel and barbaric, such as the gladiatorial games. They refused to worship the Emperor as a God. Saint Justin, an early Christian apologist, who later became a martyr, wrote a point-by-point refutation of the charge that Christian are not good citizens. He noted that Christians supported an orderly process of law as constituted by the government, and that Christians paid taxes honestly (upon the instructions of Jesus that they render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what belonged to God.) Therefore, he argued, Christianity and good citizenship go hand-in-hand.

Christianity has existed peaceably under almost every form of government where oppression did not forbid its practice. Early Christians put God above the government, and they did not consider God and the government to be one and the same. They reasoned that there is a place for secular government in the scheme of things, but no government can long exist pitted against God. In the fourth and fifth chapters of the Old Testament book of Judges, a story is told of the fate of a pagan general by the name of Sisera who fought against the people of Israel. In the twentieth verse of the fifth chapter it is written, "From the heavens the stars in their courses fought against Sisera."

Arnold J. Toynbee in his twelve-volume treatise, A Study of History, has pointed out that during the five thousand years of recorded history there have been twenty-one major civilizations, of which only five survive today. Each of the sixteen now extinct civilizations believed they were permanent. Dr. Toynbee gives a brilliant analysis of how and why each of these lost civilizations grew and why they declined. The floor of God's workshop is strewn with the broken pieces of the civilizations that lost their usefulness in God's greater scheme of things.

Hanson Baldwin was the military analyst who covered World War ll for the New York Times. In a monograph written after the war he said that there were twenty-nine distinct times during the war in which the forces of Hitler could have won completely by an elementary stroke of military strategy, but he did not. He said "It was as though God leaned over the ramparts of heaven and said, 'I won't let you!.'". "From the heavens the stars in their courses fought against Sisera."

God's plan, as recorded in the Bible and specifically lived by Jesus, is for individuals and groups of individuals to live peacefully, kindly, helping one another, and without judgment. Let us pray that the country we love will do the difficult work necessary to live up to the tenets of Jesus, and that we will not become disobedient debris on God's workshop floor. We could go either way.