The Third Answer is a good example of why stories should be stuck in a drawer somewhere before revising. Even a few days later, the seams are all too visible and the story weak. One reason is that it falls into that category known as message fiction, in which the “message” is front and center. That’s not surprising, since it started as an illustration of a Christian standing before Pliny the Younger. It would have been much better, though, to make Tullus’ internal conflict front and center, with recollections of those who recanted and those who didn’t, and his answers more of a close thing. Pliny the Younger believed there are some things a true Christian would never do, which was behind his test of praying to the Roman gods, to offer sacrifice to the emperor, and to curse Jesus. The question to early Christians was, from the very start, how far they could go in obeying authority before it ran counter to God. Even though Jesus said that He would deny those who denied Him, some Christians, facing torture and death, either renounced Christianity or denied ever having been Christians.
This is why I had thought of using John Cheke (no known relation) as the illustration, but here the issue was one of Protestantism vs Catholicism, so it wasn’t quite what I wanted to show. John Cheke was a brilliant man, a 16th Century professor at Cambridge who was a tutor for Edward VI, and outspoken Protestant. The latter lead to him backing Lady Jane Grey as queen, neither of which helped when Mary I, a Roman Catholic, became queen. After a stint in the tower of London, Cheke took off for the Netherlands, and there stayed, until he was grabbed on orders of Phillip II of Spain, and sent back to England.
There, Cheke faced his own Pliney the Younger in the form of two of Bloody Mary’s chaplains and Dr. Feckenham, the dean of St. Paul’s. Except, unlike Tullus, Cheke’s story is different. Fearing being burned at the stake, he recanted his beliefs and returned to the Roman Catholic Church.
There are things that eat at a man’s soul, and the shame of what he had done consumed Cheke. It is one thing to change your mind about something; quite another to claim that you have to save your skin. He avoided the stake, but at what cost? He sank into deep depression. In March of the following year he repented of what he had done, and by September he was dead.
I think of that from time to time. It’s hard to take a stand; harder still when it means your livelihood; even harder when it means your life. Courage is easy until you stand face to face with your fear. Those who knew John Cheke were sympathetic. But what did he gain? It’s an open question of which death, in the end, he would have preferred.
I can’t help but wonder, honestly, what I would do if faced with such a choice. Christians in the West do not face the same situation as did early Christians, or John Cheke, or Christians worldwide. Even now, for much of the world naming Jesus Christ as Lord can cost your life. Christians have always faced opposition in this world, sometimes from those that claimed to be Christians (14th Century English clergy were reluctant to be specific in condemning immorality, as the bishop of London rented out buildings for houses of ill repute). Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that he wished eugenics was applied to its opponents (who were mostly Christians), but wasn’t able to do more than dream. That said, the screws are tightening down on Christians in the West. We may not face death in our courts, but we’re already at the point where Christians can be fined and imprisoned by looking a modern Pliny the Younger in the eye and saying “No.”
One reason is that these modern Plinys no more understand what Christianity means than Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus did in the early 2nd Century. They understand it as a religion, and might even know the doctrines, but the idea of really believing it is utterly foreign. So when Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avarkian said “The goal is never to shut down a business, but to rehabilitate,” he echoed the sentiment of the Roman Emperor Trajan that the point of persecution was to bring Christians to “repentance” from their religion. Yet people will not quickly set aside following the living God, a point perhaps as lost on Mr. Avarkian as it was with Trajan.
Part of the problem is within the church itself, which more and more resembles the coin operated priest in <i>The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.</i> As late as the 19th Century, churches took such things seriously, turning out unrepentant members, denying communion or burial on church grounds, and in general making it clear they were apart from the church. Somewhere down the line, perhaps on the correct observation that churches should reach out to all sinners and not drive them away, this got confused with having fellowship with those who oppose God. The latter results in the church taking no corrective actions among its members. When have you heard of the Roman Catholics withholding communion from a politician that opposed church doctrine? When have you heard of a Protestant church turning out a member? If Christians do not regard sin among members as a dire thing, how can the world take Christians seriously when we say “I must follow God?”
In the end, though, it comes down to what choice Christians will make when faced with civil authorities who demand they follow them rather than God. When forbade to speak of Jesus, Peter and John asked the Sanhedrin whether it was right to follow their word or Gods? That question still holds today. For salvation is not in the hands of judges or generals or politicians or even clergy; it is in the ones marked by the nails that held them to the cross.
The first Christians knew this. It’s high time for Western Christians to remember it.