Letter from the pastor: Third Week of Easter—26-30 April 2020
In the ancient world, there was no right of free speech or belief. When there was a disagreement over thoughts or practices, the one possessing power would use it to silence the opposition. Violence was accepted as a justified means to attain that end.
Not surprisingly the early Church faced violent opposition to its message. The death of Stephen and the persecution that followed in the book of Acts were common experiences throughout the ancient world. James the brother of John was put to death in 42 A.D. Twenty years later James the brother of Jesus was killed. The Christian movement was not unique in this regard.
Jews can document a long history of violent opposition. In 587 B.C.E. the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. In 167 B.C.E. Antiochus IV slaughtered thousands of Jews who refused to accept Greek culture. In 70 A.D. the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple. Once Christians gained power in Europe, they themselves persecuted Jews up to modern times.
Christians also persecuted other Christians. The atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition are less known but well documented. And this took place not just in Europe, in Africa Catholic Hutu and Catholic Tutsi killed each other during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Violent persecution, unfortunately, is a continuous thread that moves through history. However, as Father George Smiga points out, it is not the violence, but the response to it that should draw our attention. As Stephen faces his death, like Jesus, he says: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen responds to violence with forgiveness.
This response of forgiveness, which is the focus of Stephen at his death, lies at the heart of Christianity. When we allow our anger and hatred to erupt into actions, violence has drawn us into its web. We can fuel violence when we believe and promote one-sided perceptions of those who are from another country or of a different race or religion. We can set the stage for persecution when we use our religious beliefs—which were given to announce good news to the world—as a weapon that demands others to think like us, or else. This is not the way of Stephen or Jesus.
A wise old woman once told me: that “forgiveness is the beginning of healing.” It is true and shortly this axiom will be put to the test. In the near future, churches will reopen. However, until there is adequate testing for COVID-19, antibodies, and a vaccine, life will not be the same. We will be required to practice social distancing, wear facial makes etc. and most assuredly there will be those who will not accept this advice from medical professionals, and they will not follow it. They will be exposing us to mortal danger because they don’t believe the scientists. I hope our response will be “Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”