Forty men, at the command of the emperor, kneeling naked on the ice, staunch in their refusal to worship any but the One-God. Forty men singing praises, their bodies buffeted by wind and stung by particles of snow. One man can’t take it anymore; he jumps up and runs from the ice, recanting his faith. The others remain.
This picture was riveted in my mind from the seventh grade Pathway reader, Seeking True Values. Of all the tales of persecution, it is the one that startled me most. The story, as written by Elmo Stoll, tells how the watching captain was deeply moved:
“‘God in heaven,’ he gasped. ‘Let there yet be forty.’
Without a glance behind him, the captain tore off his helmet. He threw down his spear. He stripped off his clothes.
The startled emperor watched in amazement as the captain ran forward on the ice, and joined in the singing─to take the place of the man who had weakened and fallen.
As the dawn of the day broke, there were forty frozen bodies on the ice.”
When I researched the story online, I found more details: warm baths prepared on the edge of the pond to tempt the shivering men, the death of the man who recanted, a vision of angels by the one who joined them. But the detail that struck me was this: these forty men were soldiers. The Pathway reader hadn’t mentioned that.
I can see why it would be difficult to explain in a few simple sentences, in a story for Amish and Mennonite children, just why it is that forty soldiers died as Christians, but that does not make it okay for Christians to be soldiers.
It is frustrating how often principles do not fit into easy boxes marked “right” and “wrong.”
You would think, out of pity for the human race, God would have made the boxes out of iron and labeled them with bright red letters, to eliminate confusion.
Why is it that the “bad people” are so often the “good people” and the “good people” so often the “bad people?” Which is which is decided mainly by the lens through which you view them.
Martin Luther, the often-cited Christian hero who condemned the corrupt practices of the state church of his time, was certainly not viewed as a Christian hero by the Anabaptists he persecuted. The same man who said, “Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: ‘Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it,'” later said, “I am on the heels of the Sacramentaries and the Anabaptists; … I shall challenge them to fight; and I shall trample them all underfoot.”
By his own words, the devil must have delighted in Martin Luther. It remains to God to judge his case. And it remains to the wise and to the childlike to discern between good and evil−so many of us are confused by labels and by loud words. If we want to see as God sees, we must learn to think outside of iron boxes with bright red letters. If God, in his wisdom, did not create them; neither should we.
I learned two box-smashing principles from my dad, a man I respect because he measures things by the Bible instead of by labels. The principles he taught me are these:
1. The trademark of a persecutor is when he pursues a cause so hard he doesn’t care who he destroys.
2. The thing that drives carnality is force.
Think about it. You have seen persecution; you have seen force. It may have been perpetuated by church leaders, by political leaders, by a man on the street, by your own parents. But if you have seen someone pursuing a cause regardless of who is hurt, you have seen carnality; you have seen the seed of persecution. The cause may be righteous−there is never a person so righteous as a persecutor. From the Roman emperor who condemned the forty soldiers, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Salem witch trials, to Nazi Germany, to the holy and consecrated 9/11 bombers−these persecutors have all been on the side of God or religion or a strong moral cause. The majority of those in their time or their culture have likely viewed their causes as “right.”
Good and evil are easy to discern in retrospect, but it is the present that matters. The persecutors we encounter will not be obvious; they will use words, manipulations, strong wills, and justified deceit−but always for a righteous cause. Still, theirs is carnality; it is force; it is the seed of persecution. Do not mistake carnality for righteousness, and do not turn away from right because someone else has twisted it.
Each of us has only ourselves to question. Do I use force to promote my cause? Am I a persecutor?
The others God will judge.