There’s often a lot of talk by Christians lamenting the non-religious nature of our government, but what I find ironic is that the early Christians faced criticism from the government lamenting that they weren’t religious! The Roman Government repeatedly called Christians atheists and even killed them for it. In fact, the first martyrdom recorded in Christian history outside the pages of the New Testament was due to just such a fact. Polycarp, a devoted Christian was killed for not being religious 1,854 years ago from this upcoming Monday (scholars believe he was martyred on February 22, 156).
And when finally he was brought up, there was a great tumult on hearing that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, he tried to persuade him to deny [the faith], saying, “Have respect to your age” — and other things that customarily follow this, such as, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; change your mind; say ‘Away with the atheists!'”
But Polycarp looked with earnest face at the whole crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and motioned to them with his hand. Then, groaning and looking up to heaven, he said, “Away with the atheists!”
But the proconsul was insistent and said: “Take the oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ.”
Polycarp said: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
ed. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers pg. 152
To the Romans, Christians were atheists. They didn’t participate in the religious practice of the Roman Empire. They were often criticized, blamed and scapegoated for the maladies afflicting the Roman empire. As Christianity spread and their numbers grew, more and more people reasoned that the gods were mad at the Romans and were punishing them for all these Christians who stopped being religious. Significant writing takes place by early Christians trying to justify themselves as good citizens despite not participating in Roman religious practice.
I find it ironic that the tables have turned. Now it’s the Christians who are in political office or positions of power that are the ones who are putting “atheists” on trial. Our country’s problems are blamed on their faltering morality or their lax religious practice. When natural disaster strikes, the economy tanks, an epidemic breaks out, or when they just need to rouse the troops for re-election these leaders are quick to blame all our woes on the “sinners” who are causing God’s curse on our country.
But that’s not how Christianity works. God isn’t sitting in heaven waiting for a quota of religious participants to be met before he blesses a country. He isn’t looking for sacrifices to pile up before extending his grace. He isn’t looking for us to be good first before he can be gracious in response. God’s favor and goodness don’t depend on our religious practice. We can’t earn his grace.
A Christian’s engagement in religious practice is never done to earn God’s favor, it is always done in response to it. God already loves us, and we engage in religious practice because we need constant reminders. We engage in prayer, because we need to regularly refocus our vision of love for God’s world and for us. We show up for a worship service on Sunday because we need to discipline ourselves to worship and give thanks even when we feel like complaining. We engage in sacrificial service because without it we become so self-absorbed we’re libel to forget about the needs and concerns of those around us. Religious practice helps us tap into God’s love for us and live out God’s love for others.
Like Polycarp, Christians should resist the notion that going to church and national blessing are yolked. Like Polycarp, we should embrace the scorn of power-hungry leaders who use religion as political leverage and then call us atheists when we don’t subscribe to their agenda. Knowing that Polycarp and the early church fathers were called atheists first makes me feel like I’m in good company. Plus, Polycarp called them atheists right back.