From the very beginning of the Christian faith, believers’ commitment to Christ was often tested with their own blood. Stephen was the first casualty; James a few years later. During the Neronic persecutions, many believers— Peter and Paul among them—gave up their lives for Christ in the city of Rome. Whether this persecution officially went beyond the walls of Rome is difficult to tell. Under Domitian, toward the end of the first century, the persecution of Christians became more severe. The apostle John was exiled to Patmos during this era. Tradition has it that all but one of the twelve apostles (sans Judas) died a martyr’s death. As the second century rolled on, more and more Christians lost their lives for the sake of Christ. Same with the third century. But the worst persecutions in the ancient world came with emperor Diocletian. From AD 303 to 311, he was gathering up biblical manuscripts for destruction, burning down church meeting-halls, and imprisoning and killing Christians by the bushel. One historian called this “the last war of annihilation waged by paganism against Christianity.”
Of course, the persecutions of Christians did not stop even after the religion became legal under Constantine. And certainly one of the darkest periods of the Christian faith was when Christians killed other Christians—during the Crusades and even today. Modern-day atrocities continue to remind us of the sacrifice that many have made in the name of Christ, even when standing up to their ‘brothers’ in Christ.
But a new kind of martyrdom has begun to emerge. Religious sociologists call it ‘green martyrdom.’ It’s not the martyrdom of one’s life, but of one’s livelihood. Part of the American dream is to be secure, healthy, and wealthy. Christians have assimilated this dream and have all too often viewed convenience as a litmus test of God’s will, wealth as a measure of happiness. But there has always been a backlash to this dream, and it’s hit the pocketbook hard. At times, a Christian needs to make a choice: should I take the cushy job that will feed my family well but has some questionable ethics to it, or should I take a lesser job that preserves my honor and conscience? And if I work for a boss who reveals himself to be unscrupulous, do I do his bidding or stand up to him? In the marketplace, medicine, law, politics, education, and virtually every arena where a paycheck is cut, ethical choices have to be made. And green martyrdom is often the result—though not as often as it should be.
Years ago, I worked at a restaurant as I was taking classes in seminary. I would report on my time cards how much I earned in tips each week. It never occurred to me that I should declare less than what I earned. But the boss had a problem with me. He said that no one else did the same thing, and that the restaurant might have to deduct more money than what they owed me if I kept it up! Besides, it made everyone else look suspicious to the IRS. There were well over 100 wait staff there, yet no one else was reporting accurate income on their time cards.
Often, it’s not just ethical choices that can affect one’s financial security. Many of the best jobs in today’s world require intellectual schizophrenia: one may believe one way, but he or she can’t speak up about it on the job—even when that job is related to the topic. This point was underscored in Ben Stein’s film Expelled. And it was seen in Hollywood’s scornful treatment of Mel Gibson when he produced The Passion of the Christ. Just as Communists were blackballed especially in the Hollywood of the 1950s, so today Christians are being blackballed especially in educational circles (most notably in science and theology). The pressures to abandon a set of beliefs, to sign on the dotted line, are enormous. Enormous in that several zeroes are at stake.
It is not only Christians who are often facing green martyrdom. All too often, in corporate America, it is those who take a stand for the environment, those who take a stand for racial equality, those who take a stand for any unjustly oppressed group who lose the jobs and the salaries and the security. And ironically, Christians are sometimes the ones doing the persecuting. Maybe we need to take stock of where all of our priorities are. As C. S. Lewis’s biographer noted, Lewis was the most thoroughly converted Christian he had ever met. Many believers are certainly following his lead. But many more of us need to think through what it means to be a believer—ethically, socially, intellectually, politically—in a non-believing world.