‘We who desire to be Christians ought to imitate what Christ said and did,’ wrote Cyprian, a third-century North African bishop. The rise of Christianity, from a small persecuted faith to the official religion of the Roman Empire, might be attributed to how well early believers achieved that aim. Here I want to focus on the aspect of imitating Christ in his gentleness.
At the core of the faith is the proclamation that Jesus humbly suffered and died, and was raised victorious. Early Christians thought this was not only to be believed, but lived. In the Martyrs of Lyons, Blandina, a female slave, is being tortured. Although she is suffering, she is yet triumphant, inspiring fellow believers, ‘for she had put on Christ, that mighty and invincible athlete, and had overcome the Adversary in many contests, and through her conflict had won the crown of immortality’.
It is not easy to be unjustly accused, or mocked, or, one supposes, tortured and killed. Our natural instinct is to retaliate when someone offends us, to return fire when fired upon, to repay insult with injury. So to move from a stance of repaying evil with evil, to one of repaying evil with good, requires patience, and patience of a certain kind. This patience stems not from a Stoic resignation to fate, but an active anticipation in hope. As Cyprian says, ‘Patient waiting is necessary that we may fulfil what we have begun to be, and through God’s help, that we may attain what we hope for and believe’.
Now Christians did indeed respond to allegations made against them. They wrote to emperors and officials, asserting the benign nature of their practices and assuring those in authority of their prayers (prayers to the one true God being much more effective than those offered to false ones). Some, like Justin Martyr, attempted to demonstrate the rationality of their beliefs, drawing on the best of Greek philosophy. The governor Pliny reported to the emperor Trajan that even those who were no longer practising Christians declared the innocence of their former way of life.
One accusation frequently levelled against Christians was that natural disasters, barbarian attacks and plagues were due to Christians abandoning the Roman gods. Cyprian writes a lively defence to Demetrian, perhaps a local magistrate. He begins by exploiting a classical commonplace: everyone knows the world is growing old, so Christians can’t be blamed for that. But there is a divine element at work—God is punishing the empire for its persecution of Christians. Christians do not defend themselves, he says, they leave that to God, confident in his ultimate control of history. Despite Cyprian’s direct, even confrontational, approach in this work, it ends with an expression of love for enemies and a call to faith:
Because we may not hate, and we please God more by rendering no return for wrong, we exhort you…to emerge from the deep darkness of superstition into the bright light of true religion. We do not envy your comforts, nor do we conceal the divine benefits. We repay kindness for your hatred; and for the torments and penalties which are inflicted on us, we point out to you the ways of salvation. Believe and live, so that you who persecute us in time, may rejoice with us for eternity.
The early Christians had good reason to feel anxious about their place in a hostile environment. But their hope in the future gave them confidence in the present, and by embracing the radically gracious path of Jesus, they changed the world.
Dr Edwina Murphy is Lecturer in Church History at Morling College, Sydney.
 Martyrs of Lyons, 1.41–42 from Eusebius, Church History, 5.1.3–5.2.8.
 Cyprian, The Advantage of Patience, 13.
 Pliny the Younger, Ep. 10.
 Cyprian, To Demetrian, 25.
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