Why go back [to the earliest convictions of Christian spirituality]? Because the Roman culture in which Christianity first emerged is very similar to the culture of today's world. It was a culture of political unrest, a world of numerous religious options, a time of moral confusion and poverty. The religions of the day made no demands on believing, behaving, or belonging. In this context the Christian message was not presented as one more spirituality among the spiritualities but... Christians proclaimed, "We believe, we behave, we belong."
This is a wonderful point to make, and it's a point that my particular Christian tradition probably needs to hear more than most. But many of us Christians in these times (at least in the western world) are so half-hearted in our faith, so comfortable with our material security, so infected by our culture. In stark contrast, look at the example of the early Christian church as it came into being in the midst of the Roman empire. The regular periods of persecution that Christians experienced meant that a half-hearted faith simply wasn't viable.
The notes we got on the theology course residential week mentioned a lady who I'd not heard of before, Perpetua of Carthage. She was executed for her faith in around AD 203, making her one of the earliest Christian martyrs. A full account of her martyrdom, along with that of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, is here and I've quoted an excerpt below (picture licensed by Creative Commons, photograph taken by Gaetan Poix on 20th August 2008):
The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully, as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.…
They were then led up to the gates, and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.
“We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.”
Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the onlooking mob. Then, when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: “You have condemned us, but God will condemn you” was what they were saying.
At this time the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this, that they had obtained a share of the Lord’s sufferings.
Perpetua then called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”
Immediately as the contest was coming to a close, a leopard was let loose, and after one bite Saturus [Perpetua's teacher] was drenched in blood. Shortly afterward, he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving.
Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.
On the one hand, I recoil in horror at the brutality in accounts like this and I feel sick with fear that I might ever have to go through anything like this (I'm not good with pain). But what an incredible example of unswerving faith in Christ! I certainly don't want to experience pain, torture or death for my faith but I pray that, if it ever comes to this, I will hold firm and confess that Jesus is Lord. Whatever the consequences.