WE KNOW FROM SEVERAL of his epistles how adamant St. Paul was against keeping the prescriptions of the Torah – circumcision, the dietary rules and the like. In the Epistle to the Galatians we see one reason why some new Christians proposed keeping them: they wanted to fit in with the Jewish community in order to avoid persecution.
“As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12).
First persecutors of this new community, the followers of Jesus, were Jews. Paul himself had been one of the most dedicated. The Acts of the Apostles describes his zeal in combating them. “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1). By being circumcised, keeping the Torah rules and not mingling with Gentiles, some Jewish followers of Jesus felt that the opposition of the more fervent Jews would be muted.
St Paul approached the issue from the other side. The message of the Gospel was that neither the Torah nor the Temple saved; only faith in the Lord Jesus. If believers in Jesus continued to observe these Jewish practices, he argued, it is the Gospel message which would be muffled. People would no longer see Christ as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6), the only way to the Father. The unique saving role of Christ in God’s plan would be forgotten.
The Practice of Fitting In
Christians throughout the history of the Church have found themselves is situations where they were eyed with distaste. Christians were considered outsiders at best or traitors at worst if they did not conform to the religious or ethical practices of the majority. The choice believers had in such cases has always been either to confront the majority by upholding their faith in Christ, to adopt the religion of the majority or to attempt a compromise: to keep their faith privately while seemingly observing non-Christian practices.
For the first three centuries of Christianity (the Roman era) Christians were suspected of superstitious practices corroding the fabric of the empire. They refused to take part in the state ceremonies honoring the gods and held secret rites behind closed doors. Their neglect of the ancient gods, many believed, would bring disaster on the empire.
When confronted, some Christians resisted and upheld their faith. They are revered today as martyrs or confessors. Others renounced their faith, offering sacrifices to the Roman gods or burning incense before their statues. Still others found ways of seeming to fit in. Some signed certificates stating that they honored the gods. In one such document which survived the author says, “I have always continued to sacrifice and show reverence to the gods; and now in your presence I have poured a libation and sacrificed, eating some of the sacrificial meat. I request you to certify this for me…” Often no sacrifices were offered; such documents were simply bought by bribing the officials. Other Christians went into hiding until the danger passed.
When the first empire-wide persecution of Christians came to an end in 260, many of those who had sacrificed or bought certificates returned to the Church. Christians did not agree on whether or how they should be received. Most Churches received these people back but with varying penalties. In some places those who had actually offered sacrifices were received as penitents who would only receive absolution and Communion on their deathbeds. Those who had obtained certificates without actually offering sacrifices were to remain as penitents for two years. Those who had betrayed other believers or who had handed over the Church’s Scriptures or holy vessels to be destroyed received additional penances before being readmitted to Communion.
In the Middle East and throughout the Ottoman Empire communities of “Crypto” or “Hidden” Christians arose. These people seemingly converted to Islam while adhering to Christian practices in secret. Many of these communities survived until the dawn of the modern era. There are reportedly still Crypto-Armenian Christians in Turkey and Crypto-Christian groups of Greeks, Latins, and Maronites in Turkish-dominated parts of Cyprus.
Perhaps the most famous Crypto-Christians are the Kakure Kirishitan of Japan who found ways of adapting and concealing their faith during persecutions in the seventeenth century. Images of Christ and the saints were transformed to look like Buddhist figures and prayers were adapted to sound like Buddhist chants. Some 30,000 of these secret Christians emerged in the nineteenth century when religious freedom was restored. Most renounced any syncretistic practices and rejoined the Catholic Church.
Fitting-In in a Secular Age
In our society conflicts with other recognized religions such as Buddhism are nowhere near as common as conflicts with the value-free lifestyles promoted by many in our secular society. Most people recognize that the historic Churches oppose abortion and have done so since the first century. Other sanctity of life issues such as euthanasia and the profit-driven restrictions on treatment of some managed care systems demand similar choices. Nurses, technicians and other medical personnel may be faced with choices comparable to those described above. Do they refuse to participate in immoral activities and risk losing their jobs or do they commit the sin their employers demand?
Observers see a number of areas in modern life in addition to health care presenting similar conflicts, among them:
- Education – Activists pressure schools to endorse homosexuality, same-sex marriage or sexual permissiveness in their curricula and student activities. Must Christian teachers choose between going along or losing their jobs? Must Christian parents sacrifice to send their children to private schools or to homeschool them rather than leave them where such views are considered “normal?”
- Politics – Catholics and Orthodox in politics must daily choose between accepting the agendas of their donors and constituents or following the Gospel. As a rule such demands are not made publicly in this country but this is not true elsewhere. In May, 2014 Canada’s Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau stated, “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding [sic] that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”
The Tradition on Abortion
First and second century documents show that abortion has never been acceptable in the Church.
Speaking of what distinguishes Christians from pagans: “They marry, as do all others; they beget children but they do not cast away fetuses” (From the Letter to Diognetus).
“You shall not slay the child by abortions” (From the Didache)
“You shall not destroy your conceptions before they are brought forth; nor kill them after they are born” (From the Letter of Barnabas)
“Those who use abortifacients commit homicide” (From the Epistle of St. Clement).