Daily Archives: March 9, 2022

How courageous would I be?

The first systematic persecution of Christians took place during the short rule of the Roman Emperor Decius (249-251). All Christians were required to bring sacrifices to the state gods, or face martyrdom. Many refused and had to pay for this with their life. They were referred to as confessors. But many others lacked that courage and decided that under the circumstances they would sacrifice to the pagan gods. Those who did so were labeled sacrificati, or thurificati, in case they had only burned some incense. There was also a significant group, the so-called libellatici, who managed to obtain a certificate (from a friendly administrator or through bribery) indicating that they had sacrificed, while in reality they had not. When the persecution subsided, church leaders were faced with the disciplinary question of how to treat the men and women who had not been brave enough to disobey the emperor’s order. Could these people resume normal participation in church life? And if so, on what terms? The question was not answered everywhere in the same way, which led to controversies and even church splits.

A few days ago, I consulted a book while writing an article, which referred to this episode in church history. It got me thinking: What would I have done? Would I have been a sacrificatus or thurificatus rather than a confessor? Or would I have had the courage to put my life on the line. Over the centuries, millions of believers were willing to do this, and even today there are countries in the world where it is literally a matter of life or death to be a follower of Christ. What would I do if I lived in such a country and I had to make the choice between staying true to my faith or becoming a martyr?

In the last two weeks we have been confronted with the determination of a large part of the Ukrainian people to fight against their Russian enemy. Many say that they will fight as long as it takes, and that they are willing to give their lives if necessary. The example of President Zelensky is impressive. He wants to stay with the people, whatever the costs, and he has firmly rejected the American offer to be taken with his family to safety. I am happy to live in a free and democratic country and would give much to preserve my democratic freedom. But would I be willing to die for my country? Suppose Putin can realize his dream and advance further towards the West. Wouldn’t I then rather be “red” than “dead”?

How far should we go in our allegiance to our faith and to fundamental moral principles? Let us first of all note that we can only answer that question for ourselves. And we can only really do so when we find ourselves in a concrete situation in which we must make such a choice. In such circumstances it is possible that some people, who sounded very tough, will, after all, opt for a safe way out, while others who did not seem so courageous may display true heroism.

Let us be slow in our judgment of others. I admire the men and women who want to defend their country, but I can also understand the Ukrainians who desperately want to survive this conflict and therefore flee from the violence. We, who live in the relatively safety of the Netherlands [and this applies to readers elsewhere], must offer support and shelter to as many victims of war and violence as we possibly can (and not only to people from Ukraine!). Let us not complain too easily when life becomes a few percent more expensive, because for most of us this may be annoying but is not a really big deal. And as we provide support, it remains important that we continue to pray for those in need, but also ask the Lord to give us true courage if we should ever find ourselves in circumstances where very difficult choices have to be made.