The “Not-so-Great Man” Theory of Missions History

What makes history… history. One can look at it as repeating cycles of human drama. It can be seen as class struggle, social and/or technological progress, paradigm shifts, or clashes of civilizations or ideologies. But one popular one is the “Great Man” Theory. In the words of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

I honestly don’t know the context of his quote so I can’t say whether I agree with his overall thesis. However, I know that there are many people, including a disturbingly large number of (commonly American) Christian leaders who have embraced the “Great Man” Theory of History, where history is essentially understood as driven by a few individuals that are rather… exceptional. It is hard not to see the ubermensch of Nietzsche or the “fountainhead” of Rand in this sort of thinking.  It can be seen, on the face of it at least, to support a certain individualistic, libertarian ideal. However, if the historical trajectory of mankind was driven by a few exceptional individuals, that puts remaining billions  as passive participants in the grand workings of a tiny tiny minority. In effect, the greatness of a few is predicated on huge flocks of sheeple.

And we see this in missions history. I have enjoyed using Ruth Tucker’s book in teaching Missions History (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) because it is so readable… and since we are designed to learn through narrative, life stories of a few often really help us learn faster. But I must admit that one negative aspect of a biographical approach to Missions History is that it gives a very false impression that the Church expanded through a very few.

When I was young, I came to believe that the great churchplanter of the first century was St. Paul. It made sense, since the book of Acts placed such a strong focus on him. But eventually, I started thinking:

  • Did Paul plant the church of Jerusalem?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Antioch?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Alexandria?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Rome?  No
  • Did Paul plant the churches of North Africa, Italy, Babylon, and numerous other places where they sprang up in the decades following the entry into the church age? Generally No.

In fact, Paul was involved in a relatively small percentage of churchplants during his lifetime. This doesn’t lessen his impact. Frankly, his impact was more in the words he wrote than what he actually did.  It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that Luke’s biographical approach to explaining early church history, while being ideal for the sake of memory, can mislead when read by people who are prone to idealize and idolize. This is true today as well. It is easy to place people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Cam Townsend, Lottie Moon, David Livingstone and many more on pedestals and see them as worldchangers, while the rest of us take up space.

In some ways, perhaps they were worldchangers. But I think in most cases, it wasn’t so much what they did but what they represented. People like William Carey and Lottie Moon (for example) did not radically transform the places they were. However, their words and actions inspired people to go, to send, and to support. In effect, it was in many ways the little people who changed things, by placing meaning to the activities of these two. If the many ignored these few, nothing of impact would have happened.

It is actually surprising, when looking at missions history how the most successful growth eras of the church happened at times when there were really no active (or at least famous) missionaries. One example would be in the first 3 centuries. Even though there were apostles (recognized churchplanters) active into the 2nd and even 3rd centuries, they rather quickly moved out of the limelight, and commonly did not appear to be prime movers in the growth of the church during this time. I will quote here Von Harnack here (I had used this long quote before… but it fits here quite well… you can read the longer version of this quote HERE.)

“The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage. How little we hear of the former and their results! How much we hear of the effects produced by the latter! Above all, every confessor and martyr was a missionary; he not merely confirmed the faith of those who were already won, but also enlisted new members by his testimony and his death.

… Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to “let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly.

… We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life which he found among Christians in general. How this life stood apart from that of pagans even in the ordinary round of the day, how it had to be or ought to be a constant declaration of the gospel—….      We may safely assume, too, that women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion (see below, Book IV. Chap. II.). But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”

“Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” by Adolph von Harnack.  Volume 3, Chapter 1

The first few centuries was a time of huge growth of the church. That huge growth came from not-so-great men and women faithfully doing their little things that led to great things in the church. If one chooses to say that they acted on the inspiring behavior of a few… I am open to granting that this may have at least a small factor. However, again, it was the people who chose to be inspired rather than be disinterested. And really if one thinks about it, I really don’t think a slave in a house in Thessalonica (for example) lived an inspirational life of hope and love around others in the household because some pillar of the faith inspired emulation at some point in time. I believe this person did it first of all as an act of faithful reverence to the one who expressed love first giving true hope.

Many of the major missions movements and major times of church growth were not driven by towering characters. Few can name any Nestorian missionaries from the first millenium. Fewer still can name monks who shared their faith during the great movement eastward of the Russian Orthodox expansion a few centuries ago. Such ignorance may be because of our own prejudices, but then the fact that we have certain “superheroes” of the faith may just as clearly demonstrate prejudice. The growth of the church in China during the Maoist regime reminds us how mission professionals are not really needed for God to do great things.

Missions History does not need superstar Christians. In fact, it seems like sometimes the decline in the Christian church (such as in North Africa in the first Millenium, and Central Asia in the early part of the second) are, in part, a failure of the gospel message to truly bridge the gap of the professional to the common (or the elite to the illiterate).

I can’t speak to History in general, but I think it is pretty clear that in Missions History, we need less “Great Men.” Our bookstores and conferences are littered with them. We need far less of them and more “Not-so-great” men and women. They are the ones who will turn the world upside-down.

——————————————-

This is part of my haranguing in support of “Small” or “Weak.” It must be a weird thing with me.  For some other posts in that line, you can look at:

                              Dream SMALL!!

                             Praying for Weak Christian Missions

                              The Power of Weakness — Part 1        (Parts 2 and 3 follow Part 1)

 

Polycarp and Persecution

Chapter 4. Quintus the apostate

Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.

Chapter 5. The departure and vision of Polycarp

But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to stay in the city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, I must be burnt alive.

Chapter 6. Polycarp is betrayed by a servant

And when those who sought for him were at hand, he departed to another dwelling, whither his pursuers immediately came after him. And when they found him not, they seized upon two youths [that were there], one of whom, being subjected to torture, confessed. It was thus impossible that he should stay hidden, since those that betrayed him were of his own household. The Irenarch then (whose office is the same as that of the Cleronomus ), by name Herod, hastened to bring him into the stadium. [This all happened] that he might fulfil his special lot, being made a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the punishment of Judas himself.

Chapter 7. Polycarp is found by his pursuers

His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them, went forth at supper-time on the day of the preparation with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And having come about evening [to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place; but he refused, saying, The will of God be done. So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was a story of comfort for Christians and an encouragement to be faithful until the end. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was executed around 155AD. His story was passed on to others soon after. But the document also gave info on how one should behave in a world that is hostile and where persecution and death for one’s faith was a very real possibility.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp”

Based on this section, the following guidelines can be given:

  • Don’t voluntarily turn yourelf over to the persecutors. Quintus did exactly that and the writer is not surprised that he apostated under torture. The writer notes that turning oneself over voluntarily is not in line with the Gospel record. It is true that Jesus hid from His enemies on at least two occasions in the Gospels… and Matthew 10:23 suggests that this may have happened quite regularly. There are, clearly, limits to “turning the other cheek.”
  • Submit to the will of God, but don’t be too quick to determine what His will is. Polycarp believed prophetically that he would be executed and yet still sought to extend his life. Eventually, he decided it was time to stop hiding, but only after his hiding led to some being tortured.
  • Don’t live in fear, but live prudently. Don’t fear death, but don’t seek it out either. Act wisely and cautiously to live and serve.
  • It is fine to surrender oneself to the enemy… but not to surrender another. Again, this is in line with the Passion story, where Jesus is seen as surrendering Himself at the appropriate time to the enemy, but this is not seen as excusing the betrayal of Judas.
  • Once escape is not an option, use the opportunity to be a witness in both word and action.

These may seem actually pretty reasonable. But they are worth thinking about. Historically, and even today, there are those who seem to think that faithfulness involves intentionally placing oneself in harm’s way. St. Ignatius of Antioch a few decades earlier than Polycarp appeared to be rather excited about the idea of being executed/martyred. However, by this time there seems to be a different view. The view in this story is much in line with the George S. Patton guidance to his men that the goal of a soldier is NOT to die for his country. (After all, a country can’t really do much with dead soldiers.)

Additionally, some have sought to take a radical obedience stance based on their interpretation of Romans 13 such that if one is summoned by the government, one must comply… it’s the law after all. But obeying an evil law is still… ultimately being complicit with that evil (regardless of what “umbrella” theorists suggest). Others take the Muslim idea that one can morally deny one’s faith to “the unfaithful” to preserve one’s life. While this is certainly pragmatic, but is ultimately unchristian. (However, refusing to forgive those who did deny is also unchristian.)

It is sad that today there is as much danger in being faithful to God in some places as there has ever been. Voluntary religion and freedom of conscience are things that we struggle with— even in places open-mindedness is allegedly promoted. But in such places, the goal is not to live in fear… but caution and prudence are good. When there is no other option to avoid the enemy, remain faithful.

How is that lived out day to day— I don’t know. For example, John Chow recognized the strong possiblity that he would die going to North Sentinel Island. Was this an act of courage or foolishness. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know about St. Paul either, who ignored the prophecies of church leaders, and boldly headed off to be arrested, imprisoned for 5 years, and eventually executed. Was this the right decision? I have no idea, but it seemed like a bad idea (and Luke sounds pretty ambivalent about the whole situation as well).

I asked a number of my students a few months back what they would do if they were being sought out by the government because of their faith. (Several of them come from countries where that is actually a possibility.) Most of them said that they did not know what they would do. Personally, I think that is a good answer. As much as it sounds impressive to say for sure what we would do, most of us don’t really know. In this story, there were several different responses.

  • Quintas voluntarily submitted to governmental summons, and then publically rejected his faith under threat.
  • Two servants betrayed Polycarp under torture.
  • Polycarp was turtured and executed without rejecting his faith.
  • The author of this story, presumably, successfully hid from persecuors and was then able to share this story with the world.

But all of these people were probably sure they would be faithful to God to the end. It is wise to pray that that faith never be tested to the limit.

Great Urban Centers

Four Waves

I have suggested before the idea that the three wave model of Protestant Mission history is inadequate. There was a Pioneer trickle of missions from quite early (perhaps 1520 is a bit too early). Out of that trickle came the great waves. Each characteristic wave had its proto-pioneers— in terms of translation, bivocational ministry, mission agency development and more. But each wave would peter out… not because of failure, but because of success.

Coastland Wave was started with the creation of viable mission structures that could maintain missionary presence in seaports. It petered out as coastlands in most places were essentially “reached.

Inland Wave was started (theoretically at least) with “faith-based missions” that was spurred on by improved overland transportation. It petered out as large geographically unreached areas faded away except in pockets that were driven more by cultural boundaries than limits in transportation.

The People Group Wave was started with a focus on languages and unreached people groups. Large unreached people groups are going down, and stats of thousands of UPGs seem a bit arbitrary. That doesn’t mean they are gone by any means. But there are trends that make these groups less critical each year. One well-known chart shows the People Group Wave continuing until Christ returns. In the past, I complained about this because it seems highly presumptive. It is also a bit lazy to assume that one doesn’t need to do any more strategy… major strategy changes at least… because Jesus must be coming soon. Now, I would say that present trends support the thought that it was presumptive.

It seems to me that the People Group Wave is in decline due to:

  • Globalization and Multiculturalism and improvements in communication
  • Human migration patterns
  • Urbanization
  • Growth of “mega-cities”

These come together to suggest that the greatest need for missionaries is in multicultural urban communities where the gospel does exist but is not presented or demonstrated in a manner that appears relevant. The gospel is lost in the cacophany.

It is starting to be the time when we have to focus less on Unreached People Groups and more on Underreached Great Urban Centers (GUCs, or perhaps UGUCs if you prefer).

St. Francis and the Sultan

St. Francis of Assisi and his trip to Cairo to meet with Sultan al Kamil is a very interesting chapter in a very ugly story (the Crusades). Part of what I like about it is that it involves dialogue between two people who were passionate about what they believed, while still being able to respect each other, speaking and listening.

A nice article on this is located at http://www.sufiways.com.   The article is:

St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Kamil: A Bold Christian-Muslim Encounter

The Cost of Holy Languages

welshI typed in Google about “speaking holy language” and got a lot of websites discussing or arguing or maybe pontificating about the following:

  • Is speaking in tongues (ecstatic speach) a holy language?  <No. ecstatic speach doesn’t have the structural qualities of a language so it is not a language– holy or otherwise.>
  • What is the language of heaven? <The Bible says that heaven is populated with people of every language. Based on that, Pentecost, and how God created us a language innovators, it seems safest to say that Heaven is joyously multi-lingual.>
  • What does Paul mean in his (rhetorical?) use of the expression “tongues of angels”?  <Since angels are messengers— communicators— of God to people, clearly they speak the languages of the people they talk to. One might argue that their God-given task requires that they be very multi-lingual. Since that would make a lot of sense to the context of the passage in I Corinthians 13, I feel that answer would suffice.>

What I really wanted to look at was what is the cost of having Holy Languages. A sacred language, “holy language” (in religious context) or liturgical language is any language that is cultivated and used primarily in religious service or for other religious reasons by people who speak another, primary language in their daily life.”  <A wikipedia answer>

Many religions have holy languages. These would include 7th century Arabic for Islam, and Sanskrit in Hinduism. Many Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Tewahedo among others) utilize a langauge that in many cases is no longer spoken by the population outside of religious settings. In many religions part of the entry to being a religious scholar is to be trained in the sacred language of the religion. The religious services are held in and sacred Scriptures are written in a language that is barely known by the adherents to that religion. On a practical level, doing so has some advantages. For one, it leaves the interpretation of doctrines in the hands of the few professionals,  keeping ecclesiastical power in the hands of a few (and this is certainly an advantage for those few). It strengthens uniformity and historical connections by having a universal liturgy. Further, it seems cheaper and safer since  translation is expensive and some leaders worry that translation may lead to false teachings proliferating. Probably most importantly, people often see the language as mystically associated with that which is transcendent or otherworldly. In effect, some feel that the mystery that is associated with religious ritual is cheapened by the use of vernacular language.

But is there a cost to holy languages as well.

  1.  False teaching. This seems to contradict what I wrote above, but that is intentional. I disagree that translation leads to false teaching. For doctrine to reach the common people who do not understand the “holy language,” either they must learn the language and then translate it (poorly most likely) internally into their own heart language, or rely on a trained person to translate it and interpret it. Translation is going to happen no matter what. The translation can either be done by a group of experts in creating vernacular texts, or it can be done poorly by the people or by individual ministers to the people. Additionally, making the people too dependent on the words of individual clerics gives them an awful lot of power and leads to the temptation to abuse or misinform. (Go to Youtube and see what individual “experts” can do to twist and misinform people who are dependent on them for their understanding of Scripture.)
  2. The Faith fails to cross cultural or religious boundaries. One of the best examples of this is the case of Christianity in North Africa. With the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, the Latin church slowly faded away. In fact there are relatively few places in the world where established Christianity completely disappeared. Why would it? While there certainly was religious bigotry and taxation and the typical ways religious majorities use their power to abuse minorities, the biggest issue seemed to be an error of the Christians themselves. They never sought to reach out to the Berber peoples in North Africa and never made the Christian faith (in terms of text, liturgy, and music) available in Berber or Punic languages. As such, Christianity was the religion of the favored Latin peoples in North Africa. But with the Muslim invasion, the favored minority became an unfavored minority.
  3. Culture becomes canon.  If one doesn’t really have the authority of Scripture available for the people, a syncretized culture commonly develops, and that culture becomes the guide for faith behavior rather than Scripture. Here in the Philippines is a great example of a syncretized folk Christianity that developed out of a Christianity that was presented in a thoroughly foreign language– Latin. The Bible was completely unavailable in local languages until the very end of the 19th century. Vernacular liturgy was unavailable until around the 1970s or so. Of course, many of us know the conflict William Carey had with the Indian practice of widow burning. This practice was perpetuated in part because it was seen as a religiously supported practice, not just a cultural practice. Carey promoted translation of Hindu Scriptures in to Bengla partly to show that the practice was not supported by their canon.

Of course, vernacular faith does not guarantee that there are no problems. Americanism (a term coined to describe a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity with capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and power politics) still exists despite a plethora of vernacular translations of the Bible. Within Islam, while it is certain that Jihadist madrassas have been helped to promote violence through sloppy exegesis of their faith, that does not mean that first language Arabic speakers are immune from such propoganda.

What to Do with the Unresponsive?

unresponsiveOne of my students is writing on the mission work of Paul as it may provide insight to his ministerial context. Describing the targets of Paul’s work, my student described three groups. First, he noted that Paul reached out to Jews. He would go to the synagogue and share Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Paul would present Jesus through the Hebrew Bible. Second, Paul would reach out to Gentiles. These would include both the God-fearers, who he may find in the synagogues, and others that might be labeled as pagans. The presentation of the Gospel for the Gentiles starts out from Creation and a benevolent God, rather than Hebrew Scripture, and Israel’s redemptive history.

But then my student added a third group. That was the Responsive. I felt that was redundant. If one wanted to speak of three groups, one could choose Jews, God-fearers, and Pagans. But as I read, I could see why it made sense. My student was following the thought of Roland Allen, that a key to Paul was not just in who he targeted, but also who he did not target. Paul did not focus on those who were not (fairly quickly found) responsive. Not everyone would feel that way. One of the books we read for Evangelism class was nice in many ways, but the writer promoted a “don’t take NO as an answer” attitude.

My student quoted a passage from Roland Allen’s classic “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” (p. 75 of the 1962 printing by Eerdmans)”:

The possibility of rejection was ever present. St. Paul did not establish himself in a place  and go on preaching for years to men who refused to act on his teaching. When once he had brought them to a point where decision was clear, he demanded that they should make their choice. If they rejected him, he rejected them. The ‘shaking of the lap,’ the ‘shaking of the dust from the feet,’ the refusal to teach those who refused to act on the teaching, was a vital part of the Pauline presentation of the Gospel. He did not simply go away,’ he openly rejected those who showed themselves unworthy of his teaching. It was part of the Gospel that men might ‘judge themselves unworthy of eternal life.’ It is a question which needs serious consideration whether the Gospel can be truly presented if this element is left out. Can there be a true teaching which does not involve the refusal to go on teaching? The teaching of the Gospel is not a mere intellectual instruction: it is a moral process, and involves a moral response. If then we go on teaching where that moral response is refused, we cease to preach the Gospel; we make the teaching a mere education of the intellect.

I wouldn’t say it is strongly as Allen, and I am not sure that Paul would either. Most adults who convert to Christianity, in the US at least, do not do so on the initial presentation. Still, there is an underlying truth that is worth dwelling on.

There is a similarity between Paul’s strategy and Jesus’ strategy in Luke 10. Jesus sent out his disciples to different villages 2 by 2. They would minister in different villages. If people were responsive, Jesus would come there for more ministry. If the people were not responsive, the disciples were to shake the dust of the village from their feet (taking nothing, not even dust). They would then go onto the next village. The 12 were sent out on one occasion and they were to focus on Jewish villages. On a different occasion 70 (or 72) were sent out with no constraints. As far as we know, they went to all — Jewish, Samaritan, and Pagan villages. We know that Jesus prioritized Jews, and yet reached out to Samaritan and Gentile communities as well.

In missions there has been an argument as to who should be targeted.  Should one target the hardest soils or the easiest soils? Some would say that one should reach the easiest soils. If people are coming to Christ, if the Spirit appears to be working in a place, then we should be putting our efforts there. Others would say that we need to target the hardest soils, the UPGs (unreached people groups). We need to reach everyone and especially those who have not been reached because they are difficult.

Perhaps with Jesus and Paul, we see a FAIRLY OBVIOUS synthesis:

  • Share the message with everyone
  • Focus on those who respond

One could argue that is a reasonable lesson from the Parable of the Four Soils. Some soil is going to be productive, while some soils mostly won’t. But the sower doesn’t decide that. He spreads the seeds everywhere and then tends what grows.

Misinformation in the 2nd Century

Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts, Image result for athenagoras 2nd century

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

-Athenagoras (ca 177) “A Plea for the Christians” chapter 3

Athenagoras refers to three charges against Christians: Atheism, Thyestean feasts, Œdipodean intercourse—- that is Atheism, Cannibalism, and Incest. As ridiculous as these charges sound, each one had a very understandable, even reasonable source (at least reasonable in a context of limited communication).

  • Atheism. Christians rejected idol worship, the Greek and Roman gods, and pretty much all of the trappings of theism in the 2nd century. The God they worshipped was identifiable primarily in Negativa. It is quite understandable that they would, in their rejection of all the gods of the time, be seen as Atheists.
  • Cannibalism. The Eucharist uses metaphoric language– the blood and bady of Christ– in its description of the wine and bread. Thankfully, in the 2nd century the reification of the metaphoric language had not yet developed, so Athenagorus did not have to address that awkwardness. Despite the language, Christians were not cannibals.
  • Incest. Christians commonly used, as many still use today, close familial language for fellow believers in Christ. If Christians describe each other as brothers and sisters while also being married and producing children, the confusion is understandable.

That is the value of people like Athenagoras, who was willing to bridge the gap between US and THEM. He was able to clarify and dispel confusion.

I know many today who like to go on about “FAKE NEWS.” Ignoring the laziness of the terminology, this sort of misinformation has been with us for centuries. I have friends who are unhappy with sources I use to get information, because they say they are sources of “fake news.” Sadly, those people actually perpetuate such problems by discouraging communicatuon, or even awareness, between groups. In the 2nd century, Non-Christians knew little about Christians— just enough to be very confused about them. Part of these was due to Christians trying shield themselves from legal and moral dangrs. This action of separating oneself off from others’ views, boycotting people who you find (for some reason) distasteful, not only makes the problem worse, it essentially creates the problem.

Misunderstandings and stereotyping come from a failure of dialogue. Additionally, misunderstandings and stereotyping are likely to increase as lack of dialogue causes each group to become more extremist in their thinking.

Here Athenagoras says that if there are such charges against Christians, it is the responsibility of non-Christians to investigate, bring forward evidence and judge rightly. I can hardly disagree with that. However, we don’t have really have the ability to require others to do what they should do, we only have the ability to do what we should do. That is why Athenagoras does not leave the situation dumped on the the non-Christians to investigate. He spends many more chapters presenting a case to correct misunderstandings.

What Athenagoras was doing was breaking down barriers to conversion. While ostensibly about reduce persecution of Christians, he was also seeking to show Christians as commendable, virtuous based on the writings of great Greek and Roman poets, philosophers, and orators. Clearly a person at that time would be more interested in beliefs of a virtuous sect, than a sect of godless incestuous cannibals.

If non-Christians in the 2nd century thought that Christians were godlessuch s incestuous cannibals, the failure is at least as much on the Christians, as it was the “news media” of the Roman Empire. Christians are supposed to reveal Christ in word and deed. It is their responsibility— NOT the responsibility of non-Christians to investigate and “get it right.”