Reading about the martyrs of the Roman persecutions helped me better to understand the central charge against them - that Christians were "enemies of the human race", foes of the common good, haters of and hated by all men: for they refused to sacrifice to the gods by whose favour the Pax Romana endured, and thus were thankless atheists; they refused the commands of the Emperors, and thus were stiff-necked, obstinate, disobedient rebels and traitors; they were members of a sinister secret society, by its cloak of darkness gravely suspect of plotting against the State, and containing a whole illegitimate rival hierarchy; and they held to beliefs and practices subversive of public morals (contemporaries found them odious and shocking, thinking they worshipped a condemned criminal or even an ass, partook of cannibal feasts, and even committed incest). The Empire was the world, and the Christians were a fifth column within it.
At least the stiff-necked and obstinate Jews, against whose revolts the Empire had to fight on several occasions, were adherents of an ancient religion, the proper cult of their fathers and their nation, and their peculiar religion was recognized, even permitted unusual privileges by the laws - but Christians, seemingly holding perverted Jewish beliefs blasphemous to the Jews themselves, were every one a traitor to their own individual ancestral religions, having spurned their native gods and turned to a new and disturbingly exclusive deity, whose worship had not been permitted by the Senate (part of whose purview was the detection and punishment of strange and vile religious cults that undermined public order).
(Refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods as the Emperor commands for the good of the State, the Christian bishop is done to death as an enemy of the world, an ingrate atheist, a dangerous innovator, a spreader of unlawful superstition and a rebel rabble-rouser.)
As the West sloughs off more and more vestiges of Christianity, as secularism bites or rather disbelief spreads, what is found is a return to paganism - for as Chesterton pointed out, those who believe nothing will believe anything. Ever seen the pages of astrology, fortune telling, numerology, tarot card reading, and worse in women's magazines? What of ghosts, witches and mediums on television - the last being on non-fiction programmes! It's a wonder animal sacrifice isn't back in vogue. Pagans could read fine philosophy, albeit vitiated by horrendous moral deviations not excluding infanticide - sound familiar? But their morality was expediency...
Note how every other religion (even, ahem, one that seems to have more than its fair share of aggressive members, yet is forever being declared in its pure form "a religion of peace" - which ought be Christianity's title), in a suitably watered down version acceptable to bourgeois sensibilities, is accorded unquestioning respect: visit some odd New Age shop and see a vast kitsch collection of Buddhas, angels, crystals and more... a veritable idol shop. But one thing you will not find: a crucifix. The world cannot abide the Crucified.
Christianity to-day, above all the Catholic Church, faces more and more the same accusations that it faced in the beginning: of practising an irrational, immoral, exclusive, world-hating religion, completely inappropriate for our enlightened age, discriminating against decent citizens: it's a wonder it's allowed at all, as it is its inappropriate and politically incorrect views deserve to be banned from being propagated or followed. Note that "politically incorrect" means precisely "not appropriate for the City, the Polis" - that is, our civil society.
St Peter writes of the pagans' uncomprehending hatred of Christians in his First Epistle (iv, 1-4):
Christ therefore having suffered in the flesh, be you also armed with the same thought: for he that hath suffered in the flesh, hath ceased from sins: that now he may live the rest of his time in the flesh, not after the desires of men, but according to the will of God. For the time past is sufficient to have fulfilled the will of the Gentiles, for them who have walked in riotousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and unlawful worshipping of idols. Wherein they think it strange, that you run not with them into the same confusion of riotousness, speaking evil of you.
To our cost, too many Christians have behaved anything but as becomes saints - the filthy crimes revealed to the world's eyes have deeply scandalized many both inside the Church, and those who, outside in darkness, might otherwise have been curious to seek after Truth, but now have recoiled in horror. We have been a stumbling block to many. The scandals besetting the Church, especially in lands with a strong Irish background, have been pleasing to none but Satan, the Deceiver. They have also revealed how compromised many in sacred orders have been, and how the innocent have suffered, the guilty prospered. All this seems to confirm the common external diagnosis: that Christianity is a wicked false religion, imposing guilt and slavish obedience on its dupes, while those in positions of power use it for their fell ends and personal gain.
What eventually overcame three hundred years and ten great Persecutions? The blood of the martyrs, which is the seed of the Church as Tertullian noted: the witness of sanctity, of unheard of generosity (such as the Christians who laboured to help plague victims and died trying - why? for they weren't even coreligionists or relations!), and the fact that ordinary folk were willing to suffer and die horribly for their belief. No pagan cult could claim such power to make the weak strong. The Holy Spirit was indeed active in His Saints, as these noble athletes ran in the footsteps of Christ Who in His Passion had preceded them: and in their witness God was glorified, and the world converted.
Persecution does seem, perversely enough, to crystallize the real issue - to be really Christ's, or not - and thus strangely to bring not death but life to the Church: as someone said, believers would be more fervent "if they were burning priests on Bourke Street" (the main road leading through the city up to Parliament House in Melbourne). A friend of mine, speaking of what he considers to be the impending return to the times of persecution, such is the falling away, cheerfully said, "Of course we'll all be martyrs!" The martyrs confessed themselves all unworthy of the gratuitous gift that was theirs - to fight the good fight, keep the faith, and for the sake of temporary suffering win eternal glory in Christ Jesus our Lord. I rather agree with the blogger who said, "She thought she could be a martyr, if they killed her quick". We must all seriously ask ourselves whether we bear witness to the Lord, or keep cowed, frightened and silent; as the roadside poster said, "If you were tried for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"
Only if one can be convicted of Christianity can one's witness hope to convert others - to the greater glory of God.