On Polycarp and Respect

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.



Worf and the Gospel of Matthew

A little housekeeping before I jump into this week’s lone post: Sorry that I’ve only posted once this week; I spent most of the past 2 weeks traveling, and while I’m proud I managed 3 posts during that time, 4 just didn’t work out. So it goes.

I suggested to you a while back that much of the New Testament reads with greater clarity when one imagines it coming from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Lieutenant Worf. I realize many of you loathe science fiction and that Star Trek might as well be a meme for nerdy irrelevance, but from time-to-time I’m going to run with this idea anyway, and today we’ll take a look at two passages from the Gospel of Matthew that make more sense in light of Klingon culture. In case you don’t know what I mean by Klingon culture, here’s my previous post.

Worf and Matthew 1
The first place in the entire New Testament in which the voice of Worf can alter our understanding is the New Testament’s first chapter. Matthew begins with a genealogy; a list of the ancestors of Jesus. To many of us, this is little more than a curiosity, but in an honor-based culture, the meaning of such a list is far more significant. Consider the example of Worf, who is frequently identified on Star Trek as, “Worf, son of Mogh.” His very identity is wrapped up in that of his father – and devoted Trekkies will know that there are times in Worf’s story when his father’s legacy is complicated. Nevertheless, the basic principle for Klingons is that the honor of one’s father(s) plays a determinative role in one’s own honor. In other words, to know of Worf’s family is to know both Worf and Worf’s status in the Klingon universe.

While we would never say that knowing Jesus’ family permits us to know Jesus (at least not fully), don’t underestimate the importance of His family history to His original audience. Matthew 1 doesn’t start with Jesus’ oldest traceable ancestor (there is a passage in Luke that does, fyi); it starts with Abraham, thereby staking a claim (obvious to Klingons but easy for us to miss) that Jesus is heir to the honor due Abraham. Just as Worf is of the House of Mogh, Jesus is of the House of Abraham.

Of course, there are a lot more names on the list, too. What do we do with them? Star Trek’s Klingons love to tell stories of great deeds and people from the past, and anyone familiar with the Old Testament will recognize many of the names given for Jesus’ ancestors. In many ways, Jesus’ ancestry reads like a who’s who of the stories Jewish children would have grown up hearing. Jesus isn’t just a worthy son of Abraham; he’s the product of a long line of legendary and honored people, as well as a handful with more checkered pasts. The genealogy in Matthew 1 links Jesus to the triumphs and stories that shaped the Jewish people, and it’s of profound relevance to the station of honor his family might hold.

Worf and Matthew 5
The Sermon on the Mount is a particularly rich portion of scripture to evaluate with Worf in mind, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll restrain myself in this case to taking a look at Matthew 5:38-42, the passage in which Jesus gives His famous instructions to turn the other cheek. To us, the advice is sufficiently counter-cultural inasmuch as our natural reaction when struck is to want to fight back. But if our understanding of what it means to turn the other cheek stops there, we lose a vital part of the passage’s context. Jesus’ instructions are far more than simply refraining from inflicting physical injury on those who attack us. Fortunately, Worf is here to illustrate that.

In Klingon culture as depicted on Star Trek, fights are common occurrences. This is true for myriad reasons, but more than anything, it is true because a society that places honor above all else has no place for a person who will allow themselves to be publicly disrespected. So if one Klingon hits another, the cultural requirement is that there must be a fight, lest the one who has been hit lose his honor and thus everything that matters in life. And while the culture of the Jewish people to whom Jesus addresses the Sermon on the Mount is less violent than Klingon culture, the context is similar with respect to honor. No member of ancient Jewish society would willingly allow their public reputation the stain of meekly accepting an assault, unless that assault came from someone so powerful that they could not be opposed (a slave would obviously have to accept blows from a master, a beggar could almost certainly be beaten by a magistrate, etc.). When we read the passage in our culture, what most of us see is that we’re not supposed to lose our temper and hit back. But what Worf would see and what Jesus’ Jewish audience did see in this passage is that those who follow Jesus are to accept dishonor without complaint.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Star Trek (and if you’ve read this far, I know you have), think about what that means. Can you see Worf simply accepting a blow without so much as making a face (or being held back by a colleague)? Never happen. But that’s the revolutionary standard called for in Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek. Not only are Jesus’ followers called to accept a dishonoring blow, they’re called to actively facilitate the next one. It’s hard to swallow for those from an honor-based culture, and it’s an element of the New Testament often lost to modern American readers. But not to those of us who read the New Testament with Worf by our side.

Elections & Experts

As we head into the election next Tuesday – with many people having already voted – it seems worth pointing out that the United States isn’t the only country in which economic stagnation has led to hotly-contested elections recently. Since the financial crisis of 2007, countries all over Europe have seen contests that were too close for pundits to call on election day. Of course in the United States, we never have elections that are too close to call; we just have elections that some pundits guarantee will produce one result while other pundits guarantee the opposite. Sometimes such guarantees can even cause people to assume their vote won’t matter (think Romney voters in New York or Obama voters in Kansas), and that’s unfortunate.

Consider the September parliamentary election in the Netherlands. It was obvious to everyone going into the election that the result would be utter chaos. You see, the Netherlands has myriad political parties, and in every election somewhere between 6 and 12 of those parties end up winning seats in their parliament. In order to form an actual government and select a Prime Minister (In parliamentary systems like the Netherlands, the national leader – the Prime Minister – is comparable to our Speaker of the House, and must be chosen by a majority vote of the parliament), the government of the Netherlands is typically composed of coalitions comprised of multiple parties. Going into this September’s election, pundits warned everyone that all the parties would get a few seats and no party would get too many, meaning achieving a governing coalition would require negotiations between 3 or 4 parties at the least.

Ever been part of negotiations between 3 or 4 parties at the same time? It’s nearly impossible to find a solution to satisfy everyone, and the risk to the Netherlands was that no amount of negotiations might produce results, leaving the country without a government or a Prime Minister. For those of you who didn’t take comparative politics in college, what that means is that there would be no leader in the Dutch parliament, no head of any of the cabinet-level departments (called Ministries in a parliamentary system), and no person with the legitimacy to take phone calls from international leaders or introduce a legislative agenda. The American equivalent would be no President, no Speaker of the House, no Senate Majority Leader, no Secretary of State, no Secretary of Defense, no Surgeon General, etc.

Lest we forget, meanwhile, this paralysis would simply be another piece in the continuing crisis of the Euro Zone; the last thing Europe needs is for one of the more stable countries to be rendered immobile and mute by the long-term absence of a government. Not only would the Dutch pay the price, but the results would probably have at least some impact on all of Europe as well. Unfortunately, pundits knew all of this would result from this year’s election well in advance.

Except that it didn’t happen. Two parties each won roughly 1/4 of the seats in parliament, and last week they managed to negotiate a 2-party coalition government. Dutch election results don’t get more stable than that, and it definitely caught the experts by surprise.

I tell you this right before our own election here in the United States for one very simple reason: sometimes the experts are surprised, and sometimes they’re simply wrong. Whatever outcome is being predicted by the pundits you trust, bear that in mind. Your candidates may win or they may lose, but not even the analysts really know before the votes are counted. So go vote, even if some expert has already told you how the outcome will be. Sometimes those experts are right, and sometimes they need people like the Dutch (or you) to straighten them out.