Martyrdom & Non-Resistance

This article is adapted from an essay written for a course at Wesley Seminary.

The Passion of Saints Perpetua & Felicity (hereafter The Passion) is a melancholy story of Christan martyrdom, allegedly written by the main character, Vibia Perpetua.[1] Perpetua is referred to as “a woman nobly born, educated in the liberal arts, and respectably married.”[2] This information offered by the editor helps us understand that Perpetua was part of a higher class of Roman society, yet she was still imprisoned for her faith. It seems unclear why Perpetua kept this diary. The translator’s notes seem to indicate that she might have desired her diary to be more than a personal journal, based on both the editor’s explanation of his details on the gladiatorial contest and Perpetua’s invitation to “let someone else write about that [the games] if he sees fit.”[3]

We can postulate several different reasons for Perpetua recording these events, however we find greater explanation in the words of the editor. He compares this account with:

“Illustrations of true faith from earlier times…” which “…are set down in writing so that God might be honored and his people comforted by reading and recalling the very facts themselves.”[4]

The editor also concludes with a benediction, reminding the reader that stories like this one remind of the Holy Spirit’s constant work.[5] This intentional conclusion leads us to hypothesize that the editor believes that the Holy Spirit was equally present in the martyrdom of these individuals, as he was with the martyrs mentioned in the New Testament.

In this story, we recognize that the profession of Christian faith led to execution.[6] Spickard and Cragg indicate:

“Roman officials would attempt to prevent ‘lynching’ by conducting trials of those accused, but mere confession of being a Christian was sufficient for execution. Depending on his or her status within the society, the criminal would die by the sword (usually beheading, an honorable death) or be sent to the arena to be torn by the beasts or die in some other way the Romans found amusing (essentially a slave’s death).”[7]

Interestingly, Perpetua was subject to a slave’s death even though she was a member of the nobility. I am curious as to whether or not her gender played a role in her execution. It appears as though the cow was chosen because of her and Felicity’s gender.[8]

When reading The Passion, today’s Christians might be appalled and disgusted. But the reality is that similar persecution happens even today. This story seems so distant for many North Americans, but it raises questions we must consider—such as “How will we respond to persecution?” Rea poses the questions:

“…how should Christians respond when persecuted or oppressed? Christians in our world are being martyred daily, as they have been in every period of church’s history.”[9]

How we respond to persecution impacts our theology and methodology of ministry. We can respond like the noble examples listed in this story or we can return harm to our enemy.

Ron Sider explores a variety of perspectives on killing in the early church. When referring to Tertullian—the plausible editor of The Passion—Sider states that:

“[Tertullian] also said Christians count it better to be killed than to kill.”[10]

As Christians we have a responsibility to keep in mind the legacy of martyrdom and non-resistance that has gone before us. While I believe that the editor of The Passion was not intending to endorse non-violence as his key thesis, it becomes a major application we can relate to today. We can also find truth in the editor’s belief that God is still speaking today, just as he did in days past.[11] With the testimony of non-resistance and the pursuit of seeking God’s voice today, we can learn great insights from the inspiring work of The Passion of Perpetua & Felicity.

[1] Litfin, Bryan M. Early Christian martyr stories: an evangelical introduction with new translations. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014, 94.
[2] Ibid., 94.
[3] Ibid., 101.
[4] Ibid., 93.
[5] Ibid., 109.
[6] Ibid., 97.
[7] Spickard, Paul R., Kevin M. Cragg, and Gordon William. Carlson. A global history of Christians: how everyday believers experienced their world. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001, 44.
[8] Litfin, 2014, p. 106.
[9] Rea, Robert F. Why church history matters: an invitation to love and learn from our past. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 103.
[10] Sider, Ronald J. The early church on killing: a comprehensive sourcebook on war, abortion, and capital punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, 44.
[11] Litfin, 2014, p. 93.

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