As The Federalist has recounted all too well, social and political pressure is mounting against Christians in the United States. Liberal media pounces on any Christians—be they Chip and Joanna Gaines or Karen Pence—who stray from the radical LGBTQ orthodoxy imposed on American society. Federal judicial nominees are censured by senators for allowing their religious beliefs to live too “loudly within” them.
For reasons such as these, many are afraid to be overt or confident in their faith. A good friend of mine attends a church that sells itself as “a church for people who don’t go to church,” whatever that means. This is presumably to distance itself from a historic, institutional Christianity many view as archaic, intolerant, or even oppressive.
Rather than cowering in fear or going on the retreat, however, Christians need to stand their ground and exemplify the kind of courage and obstinacy that defined the early church. What American Christianity needs is more people like St. Polycarp, whose feast day we honor on February 23.
A Man Close to the Apostles
Polycarp is not well known among most Christians today, which is a shame given his proximity to Christ and the apostles. Born around 70 A.D., in what is known today as Turkey, Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle. One ancient source even claims that John ordained Polycarp as bishop of Smyrna, also in present-day Turkey. The second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyon says of him: “He conversed with John and many others who had seen Jesus Christ, the words he had heard from their mouths.”
For this reason, Polycarp is named one of the Apostolic Fathers, a title reserved for the three earliest church fathers. We possess only one work attributed to Polycarp: his “Letter to the Philippians,” written in the second century A.D. This is an incredibly valuable text to understand the nature and and beliefs of the church in the decades immediately following the apostles. For one, this text corroborates the widespread use of many of the books now included in the New Testament.
History has also bequeathed to us another text about this early churchman, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” one of the earliest accounts of a Christian martyr. Here we encounter the unparalleled courage and strength of the early Christians, exemplified in the words and actions of Polycarp.
“Martyrdom” recounts the final days of the aged bishop, who was hunted by local Roman authorities eager to send a message to the Christian community, which many pagan Romans viewed as a strange cult. This perception stemmed both from the unusual rites Christians were said to perform (e.g., eating the body and drinking the blood of the founder of their religion) and their refusal to participate in Roman civic religion.
Indeed, Christians’ refusal to offer sacrifices to Roman gods was viewed as fundamentally unpatriotic, an insult to local political leadership, and a threat to the welfare of the empire. Unwilling to help maintain the Roman civic-religious balance, they were, quite ironically, branded as atheists. This accusation, we will see, is central to the attack against Polycarp.
Taking a Stand Against Persecution, Atheism
Polycarp, persuaded by his congregation, first removes himself to the countryside. There he is soon arrested, betrayed by a servant who is tortured by Roman police. Polycarp’s response to his arrest is simple and confident: “The will of God be done.”
The police captain Herod and his father Niketas meet Polycarp and try to persuade him to offer pagan sacrifices. They ask: “But what harm is it to say, ‘Lord Caesar,’ and to offer sacrifice, and so forth, and to be saved?” Polycarp, unwilling to betray God, flatly refuses this invitation. He is then taken to the arena to be killed.
In the arena, the local proconsul demands Polycarp, “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: ‘Away with the Atheists.'” As explained above, the proconsul here urges the bishop to denounce his fellow Christians, whom the Romans call “atheists.” Polycarp, undeterred and “with a stern countenance,” examines the crowd of pagans who have come to gawk at his execution. He waves his hand at the entirety of the stadium, filled with “lawless heathen,” and declares, “Away with the Atheists!” Mic drop.
Yet the proconsul presses further, beseeching him to “revile Christ.” Polycarp remains unmoved, asserting: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” The following dialogue is worth quoting in full:
But when he [the proconsul] persisted again, and said: ‘Swear by the genius of Caesar,’ he answered him: ‘If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you are ignorant who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity fix a day and listen.’ The Pro-Consul said: ‘Persuade the people.’ And Polycarp said: ‘You I should have held worthy of discussion, for we have been taught to render honour, as is meet, if it hurt us not, to princes and authorities appointed by God. But as for those, I do not count them worthy that a defence should be made to them.’ And the Pro-Consul said: ‘I have wild beasts. I will deliver you to them, unless you repent.’ And he said: ‘Call for them, for repentance from better to worse is not allowed us; but it is good to change from evil to righteousness.’ And he said again to him: ‘I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you despise the beasts, unless you repent.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.’
Further attacks are made against Polycarp by the crowd. Nothing makes him change his course. He is then bound and burned. The conflagration doesn’t kill the bishop quickly enough, so an executioner approaches and stabs him to death. Thus dies an amazing early Christian martyr.
We Need Polycarp’s Pride in His Beliefs
Whenever I return to this martyrdom account, what strikes me as remarkable is the pride of Polycarp. This is not a pride that stems from an inflated ego, but a pride in the unassailable power of the one in whom he believes. This pride pushes Polycarp not just to hold his ground in the face of persecution and death, but to boldly assert the supremacy of his cause in the public square.
He perseveres, despite ridicule and impending violence. Christians need this kind of pride and perseverance today, in the face of so many assaults on our beliefs and way of life. We need to never be ashamed of our beliefs, no matter how unpopular or frequently derided. Rather, we should be on the offensive, exposing the weaknesses, flaws, and foolishness of secular progressivism and atheism.
The left has its own dogma that “lives loudly” within many of its adherents, bent on eradicating Christianity entirely from the public square. “Away with them,” while we stand firm in Christ.