Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | February 27, 2008


In Christianity martyrdom has always been regarded as sharing in Jesus’ suffering by giving your life for the gospel. I just mention that as a contrast to other forms of martyrdom that involve taking as many other people with you as you can.

Studying the early martyrs recently – like Polycarp and Perpetua – I was struck by something I had never thought of before. The very act of not fighting back when faced with violent persecution is an acknowledgement of humanity’s inclusion in Christ.

In order to respond to violence with violence you have to regard the other person as somehow something different than yourself, somehow less than human or excluded from the humanity in which you are a participant. No officer ever tells his soldiers “go murder your brothers in the other army.” He says something like “wipe those @#!% off the face of the earth!!” Responding to violence with violence requires thinking like a roach exterminator, not thinking like a child of the Father in relationship with humanity in Jesus.

When Jesus said “Father, forgive them” and when the martyrs of the church have echoed his words, they were acknowledging that we are all in this together. The persecuted and the persecutor, the perpetrator and the victim, both share together in the life the Son has shared with the Father and with humanity.

Thus the prayer for forgiveness. What the perpetrators of violence and persecution need is not a repayment of their violence in kind or even a transformation from being animals to being human in Christ. They are already human in Christ, they just aren’t acting like it.

What they need is a change of mind – a repentance. To stop believing lies about themselves and start believing the truth: that they, like the ones they are persecuting, are already forgiven and included in Christ.

What’s really remarkable about so many of the stories of the martyrs through the centuries is how often the ones assigned to carry out their persecutions failed to do so. Frequently in the martyrologies the persecutors stop, repent, and end up going to the death with the very ones they were told to kill.

In the end the Christian response to persecution in the ancient Roman world brought about the repentance and conversion of the Empire itself. With one voice the early church for three long centuries said of their Roman persecutors “They are human; they, like us, are part of the new humanity created in the Son’s incarnation; Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And the truth of this good news won the day.

Perhaps its time for the church to return to the truth of humanity’s adoption in the Son and find again the power that comes from praying for those who persecute us and loving those that hate us.


  1. Amen Jonathan.

    Your comment made me think of Jesus’ sermon on the mount where he says to his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Mat. 5:44-45).

    Some say that these instructions are for a future dispensation (after the “church age”). Others say they are for a time preceding the church age (the Old Covenant). But what I find in Jesus’ words are the powerful expression of the “ethos” of his Kingdom – the “core values” of King Jesus himself.

    Included in him, we are all sons of his Father in heaven. And Jesus’ life within us seeks to be expressed (flow out from us). How beautiful to see his love for his enemies expressed in the lives of such martyrs as Polycarp and Perpetua!

    May we too participate in Jesus’ life as he loves our enemies. As you note, they too are God’s dearly loved children. They just don’t know it.

  2. Thanks for the great comments!

    I’ve reached the conclusion that Jesus is describing himself in his communion with the Father and the Spirit in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s saying to us “this is the kind of life that I am, this is what you have been included in.”

    The more we believe that Jesus is sharing the Triune Life with us the more we look like what is described in the Sermon on the Mount. The less we believe Jesus is sharing the Triune Life with us the less we look like it.

    So, I think the Sermon on the Mount is a diagnostic tool to help us see what it is we really believe about God, ourselves, and others.

    The reason the church is currently doing such a bad job of expressing the life described there is because we have embraced a theology that says we have to do something to make ourselves like Jesus instead of believing and resting in the truth that Jesus has made us part of himself.

  3. Amen and amen!

    And what joy, peace and fulfillment there is in knowing (experiencing and sharing in) this Jesus and the life and love he shares with his Father and the Spirit!

  4. Too bad so many Christians have fallen for the “us and them” approach to ministry and the gospel. You rightly point out that we are all in Christ together – even the “bad guys.” (They just don’t know it YET!)

    I am saddened at how often the Sermon on the Mount has been preached (including by me) as a list of things we “need to do” – yet never seemed able to accomplish, rather than a description of how to “be in Jesus.”

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