The Epistle to Diognetus is a second-century letter, a brief work of Christian apologetics. In the fifth section of the letter, the author talks about what sets Christians apart from other peoples in the Roman world. Christians are peculiar, he admits that. To be sure, they live with everyone else, and in many ways they live like everyone else: they work in the same kinds of jobs, they wear the same kinds of clothes.
But they are also different in significant ways: they are sexually chaste, they don’t kill unwanted children, they are generous and committed to sharing both within their churches and with people outside those churches; and, above all, they refuse to worship the Roman gods. For these differences they are hated, and hated the more the kinder they are.
And there’s one more thing that sets the Christians apart: when they are attacked, when they are persecuted, they don’t reply in kind. Others say to the Christians, “You are my enemy”; Christians say to the others, “You are my neighbor.”
Were they wrong to live this way?
The best scholarly estimates we have — I’ve seen these numbers in several places but most recently in Larry Hurtado’s book Destroyer of the Gods — suggest the following:
- In 40 A.D. there were about a thousand Christians
- In 100 A.D. no more than ten thousand
- In 200 A.D. around two hundred thousand
- In 300 A.D. around six million
Note that the stratospheric growth occurs before Constantine, and in a period of intermittent persecution.
Here’s a passage from an essay by the theologian Brad East:
In Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Paul Griffiths imagines what it might mean for the final rest (quies) of heaven to be enacted by the church in via. His proposal is a particular kind of quietism: a quietism, that is, “with respect to political interest, not with respect to politics simpliciter.” It is a quietism “of consequentialist interest in the consequences of political advocacy, a cultivation of a sancta indifferentia” regarding the narrowly measurable and altogether unknowable effects of political advocacy — advocacy that Christians should continue, note, but because of the intrinsic rightness of the cause, or because of a policy’s beauty or fittingness, or because the Lord wills it. Not because “studies show …” Such “quietist ascesis of political interest in the consequences of what we advocate in the sphere of politics” is one pole of a continuum. The other pole is Vox.
In a follow-up blog post, East writes:
The martyrs teach us, at a minimum, that sometimes letting go is more faithful than fighting, dying more faithful than continuing to live. The first three centuries of the church’s life attest to the vitality of this witness precisely in the arena of politics, as does the church’s experience across the globe at present and in recent centuries.
The martyrs were not doormats, and martyrdom is not despair or acquiescence before evil or persecution. It is the power of the cross made manifest in the world. Surely that power has a word to speak to our moment, and to the dispute alluded to above. If we listened, what might it say?