Note: The quotations below are from the 3rd edition of Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Oxford University Press, 1999.
In the year 156, give or take a decade, Rome butchered an octogenarian for being a Christian. While executions of Christians during such persecutions weren’t fantastically rare, several things set this particular geriatric apart. For one thing, he was a Christian Bishop – the Bishop of Smyrna, to be precise. For another thing, we know his name, and a written eye-witness account survived. Still more unusual, meanwhile, is the fact that other church fathers tell us that this Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. But for as much as we know about Polycarp’s death, the most striking thing about the story of his martyrdom is Polycarp himself.
You see, his execution for being an atheist (quick history lesson: while today many people think ‘atheist’ has always meant someone who doesn’t believe in God, during the Roman empire, being an ‘atheist’ more typically meant failing to believe in the right gods, such as Caesar) was anything but a surprise. In a half-hearted attempt to avoid it, Polycarp withdrew from the city of Smyrna to a country house, where he waited for his arrest. When the soldiers came for him he didn’t run or fight; instead he fed them as much food as they could eat, asked for time to pray, and then went along quietly.
Upon reaching Smyrna and being put on trial, Polycarp was asked to eliminate his crime by renouncing Jesus and confessing his devotion to Caesar. To ensure that there could be no confusion as to what he believed, he explicitly confirmed that he would not because he was a Christian, and then uttered his most famous quote (about Jesus): “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
As I was taught in college, this sealed Polycarp’s fate. While a mob screamed for his death, he was placed atop a pile of wood – though not tied to it, since he convinced them it was unnecessary – which was set alight. According to the story, however, the fire didn’t harm him, and the frustrated Romans instead stabbed Polycarp, who bled to death as his blood extinguished the flames upon which he stood.
In rereading this account this week, however, I noticed one point in the story that my earlier education had omitted. After announcing himself a Christian – but before being sentenced to his fate – Polycarp endeavors to convert the proconsul who is judging him. And while that’s not terribly surprising – we see Paul witness to any authority figure who will hear him, after all – the exchange between the proconsul and Polycarp is. It begins with a request from Polycarp, “if thou art willing to learn the doctrine of Christianity, grant me a day and hearken to me.”
To this, the proconsul replies by telling Polycarp, “Persuade the people.”
And in what I find to be the story’s most interesting twist, Polycarp responds, “Thee I had deemed worthy of discourse, for we are taught to render to authorities and the powers ordained of God honor as is fitting. But I deem not this mob worthy that I should defend myself before them.”
Polycarp didn’t want to teach Christianity to the proconsul out of a desire to save every person he met; he wanted to instruct him out of a respect for his role and his position. To Polycarp, even when he was at the point of death and while faced by the man who would order his execution, giving honor to authority figures mattered.
So don’t tell me that you can’t respect John Boehner or Barack Obama because of their positions on abortion or immigration or health care or taxes. A week after the election, glancing at social media reveals to me that many Christians are even angrier after the election than they were before it, and are expressing that anger in disgracefully contemptuous ways. There was a time when the stakes for individual Christians were inarguably higher, and Christians knew how to conduct themselves as respectful citizens empowered by the dignity of their hope. It was a time when being a Christian meant treating political leaders with the respect demanded by Romans 13, and it was a time when Christians taught each other and their children to follow through with such integrity even when the results were as bloody as Polycarp’s.
Elections come and go, government officials rise and fall, but our faith is thousands of years old. Don’t be one of those people – from either side of the political array – acting more like the mob than like Polycarp.