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Self-Defense or Self-Denial? Part 3

In the previous two posts, we've looked at David French's argument for a God-given right to self-defense. Taking the same approach as 19th-century supporters of slavery, French gathered a set of proof texts that appeared to support his case. But for each proof text, the context suggests a very different interpretation.

As if that is not enough, French's reading goes against the entire history of Christian interpretation of the Bible.

Many early Christians found themselves in situations much more dangerous than anything David French has ever faced, and they made no attempt to fight their way out. Here's an excerpt from the second century Martyrdom of Polycarp.

The proconsul said, "Prevail upon the people." But Polycarp said, "As for yourself, I should have held you worthy of discourse; for we have been taught to render, as is proper, to princes and authorities appointed by God such honor as does us no harm; but as for these, I do not hold them worthy, that I should defend myself before them."

Whereupon the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts here and I will throw you to them, except you repent." But he said, "Call for them, for the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is improper to righteousness."

Then he said to him again, "If you despise the wild beasts, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent." But Polycarp said: "You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."

Polycarp was not the only one. Some years later, a theologian named Justin was arrested and threatened with beheading if he would not make sacrifices to the Roman gods.

The prefect spoke to Justin Martyr first. "Listen, you who are called learned and think you know true doctrines. If you are scourged and beheaded, do you believe you'll ascend to heaven?"

"That is my hope," Justin replied. "If I endure these things, I shall have his gifts. I know that for all who have lived according to our teachings, the divine favor remains on them until the completion of the whole world."

"So you suppose that you will ascend into heaven to receive some payment for your faithfulness?"

"Not suppose, I know and am fully convinced of it," Justin Martyr replied.

The pagan historian Tacitus was concerned about how this would be perceived by the public. When Nero ordered 7000 Christians executed following the Great Fire of Rome, Tacitus wrote:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

By the end of the second century, the apologist Tertullian would boast, "The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." Tertullian would later tell of the martyrdom of several Christians including one Vivia Perpetua, "respectably born, liberally educated, a married matron, having a father and mother and two brothers, one of whom, like herself, was a catechumen, and a son an infant at the breast. She herself was about twenty-two years of age."

Perpetua had a servant named Felicitas, who was arrested with her. Felicitas was eight months pregnant at the time.

But respecting Felicitas (for to her also the Lord's favour approached in the same way), when she had already gone eight months with child (for she had been pregnant when she was apprehended), as the day of the exhibition was drawing near, she was in great grief lest on account of her pregnancy she should be delayed — because pregnant women are not allowed to be publicly punished — and lest she should shed her sacred and guiltless blood among some who had been wicked subsequently. Moreover, also, her fellow-martyrs were painfully saddened lest they should leave so excellent a friend, and as it were companion, alone in the path of the same hope. Therefore, joining together their united cry, they poured forth their prayer to the Lord three days before the exhibition. Immediately after their prayer her pains came upon her, and when, with the difficulty natural to an eight months' delivery, in the labour of bringing forth she was sorrowing, some one of the servants of the Cataractarii said to her, "You who are in such suffering now, what will you do when you are thrown to the beasts, which you despised when you refused to sacrifice?" And she replied, "Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him." Thus she brought forth a little girl, which a certain sister brought up as her daughter.

Perpetua, Felicitas, and their companions remained resolute in prison until the day of their execution arrived.

The day of their victory shone forth, and they proceeded from the prison into the amphitheatre, as if to an assembly, joyous and of brilliant countenances; if prechance shrinking, it was with joy, and not with fear. Perpetua followed with placid look, and with step and gait as a matron of Christ, beloved of God; casting down the luster of her eyes from the gaze of all. Moreover, Felicitas, rejoicing that she had safely brought forth, so that she might fight with the wild beasts; from the blood and from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after childbirth with a second baptism.

Tertullian ended his account by praising the martyrs' courage.

O most brave and blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ! whom whoever magnifies, and honours, and adores, assuredly ought to read these examples for the edification of the Church, not less than the ancient ones, so that new virtues also may testify that one and the same Holy Spirit is always operating even until now, and God the Father Omnipotent, and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, whose is the glory and infinite power for ever and ever. Amen.

The early Christians understood Jesus' command, "Take up your cross and follow me," and they were willing to follow him even if it cost them their lives. In David French's call for Christians to take up an AR-15 rather than a cross, the message of Jesus—and the witness of the church—has been lost.

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