Sunday, December 27, 2009

St. Stephen's Day

Yesterday, Dec 26, marks the feast of St. Stephen the Deacon, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was appointed as a deacon by the church in Jerusalem to help organize the distribution of alms to the poorer members. He fell afoul of the Sanhedrin and was tried for blasphemy. He knew he was going to die, and like Socrates took the advantage to make a brilliant speech, haranguing his persecuters for fifty verses and accusing them of ignoring every prophet that God every sent them.

Stephen was dragged outside of the city to be stoned to death, and looking into the sky he saw a vision of God the Father, with God the Son at his right hand. This is one of the few explicit scriptural references to the Trinity, of course, and it is the forerunner of a great many visions of the Trinity that people were to have in the subsequent 2,000 years. And we are told, further, that "kneeling down, he prayed, Lord, hold not this sin against them."

This echoes Christ's words from the cross, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." But it's more powerful coming from Stephen. Christ had a very specific purpose for accepting torture and death at the hands of his enemies: the flogging, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion, and the death were necessary in order to atone for man's sins and to reconcile man to God. Every one of those strokes, and every moment of pain, every drop of blood, was necessary, for it had been foretold, "By his stripes we are healed." But Stephen had no such need to be executed; it was a pure injustice, a pure act of evil, unmitigated by any ultimate purpose. And yet Stephen went to his death uncomplaining, praying for his persecutors, that they might not be held culpable for their sin.

Stephen is a moral example for the rest of us, of how to act in the face of injustice, oppression and death. This doesn't mean, I don't think, that all of us are bound to accept the evil and oppressive things that people do to us, and go happily to our deaths. We have the right to try to defend ourselves, and not merely the right but the duty to try to defend others, from oppression, and for that purpose we have armies, police forces, and revolutionary movements. But the example of Stephen impels us to something deeper than mere pacifism. As St. Augustine says, we may resist evil and oppression, in our capacity as agents of political organizations charged with ensuring the public good, but we must do so with love for our enemies.

What does it mean to love our enemies? It doesn't mean leaving them free to do evil, and it doesn't preclude keeping them from doing evil, even by lethal force if necessary. It does mean that we should do so with no more resort to force than the demands of justice and security demand, and it means that we should always seek their correction and their ultimate good, not merely our own. As St. Augustine puts it in this Treatise on the Epistles of John, "The dove hath no rancor, but with beak and claws she fights for her young. Be fierce against evil, but have a fierceness without rancor: the fierceness not of the raven, but of the dove." We are bound to have mercy on our enemies, when they have been turned away from evil, and we are bound to hope, and pray, for their ultimate salvation.

If Stephen had had the ability he would have had every right to try and escape, and to try and resist his persecutors. But not everything that we may lawfully do, should be done in any particular case. Stephen chose a different way, and made himself an example of self-sacrifice and forbearance. Perhaps in this he was guided by the Spirit, who sought to make him an example of courage and mercy in the face of death, for succeeding generations. For courage, too, is demonstrated in Stephen's last words: he had no fear of death, for he knew that he was soon to wear the crown of a saint. And at the last, he had only love for his enemies. So great was his love for mankind that even in the face of death, his last thought was for his enemies' salvation. Such is the kind of perfect love to which we are called.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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