To persecute is to follow someone to the very end with ruthlessness and malice. It is an ugly word for an ugly concept. Sadly, it is as much a feature of life in the twenty-first century as in any other. Today, on the feast of St Agatha, we may think of the stately procession of virgin martyrs along the north wall of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo or the gruesome details of her martyrdom safely contained in the Latin of her passio or the antiphons at Vespers of her feast. We do not think of the blood or the torment or the sheer brutality of her end. In effect, we sanitise the account of her death.
I wonder whether we do something of the same with the contemporary persecution of Christians. Occasionally, the media will alert us to the horrors of what is happening to the Christians of Mosul, say, or to an individual such as Asia Bibi; but apart from a few fleeting images and a temporary place in the headlines, the subject is quickly forgotten. We dutifully pray and do our best to lobby those who could actually do something to help, but we do not like to dwell on the details of what life is like for those for whom we are praying. We may even reflect that we are virtually back in the days of the Decian Persecution, where Christians are of no account and often enemies of the brave new world others seek to create. We are hopeless and helpless (though we would never care to admit as much).
Personally, I don’t feel either hopeless or helpless, even though I have no power to influence anyone of any political consequence. I feel a great responsibility for my fellow Christians undergoing such agony. The problem for me, as for many others, is what can I do in addition to praying? I would suggest we can learn from today’s martyr the importance of living a life of great purity — not in the narrowly sexual sense, but in the sense that we try to live the values we proclaim. If we decry persecution, we must examine our own consciences. Is there anyone we are hard on, whom we treat with less courtesy or consideration than another? That may not sound like persecution to you, but we can only persecute those we consider to be less important than ourselves. The origin of this particular evil of persecution lies in contempt. How easy it is to slide unknowingly into a contemptuous attitude towards others, and how quickly a small sin can become a large one!
Note on the illustration
Photograph of part of the north wall of Sant’ Apoliinare Nuovo © Genevra Kornbluth.www.KornbluthPhoto.com