St. Polycarp asked the above question to the man who was about to burn him alive. The year was 156 C.E. A crowd had gathered at the arena to watch Roman justice in action. (For Rome, jurisprudence was a bloodsport designed to demonstrate the power of the empire.) The audience had already seen one Christian martyred and another renounce his faith, but they demanded more. They wanted the local bishop, Polycarp.
Eighty-six years I have served [Christ], and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?
When news reached Polycarp that there was a warrant for his arrest, his congregation persuaded him to flee the city. The flock needed its shepherd. So Polycarp relented, and made his way to a farmhouse in the countryside. But Roman soldiers were experts in “enhanced interrogation techniques.” A few days later, Polycarp lay asleep in his bed when the door of the house was kicked in by angry men, shouting his name.
The story goes that he had a chance to flee. Instead, he said, “God’s will be done.” He offered food and wine to refresh the men who had come to arrest him, “as much as they wished.” In exchange, he asked only for an hour to pray (he took two). When he was finished, he returned to his sated, sleepy captors and went with them to humiliation, torture, and certain death.
At his trial, the proconsul tried to coax Polycarp into renouncing his faith. The Roman empire preferred live citizens to dead ones. A Christian who could be cowed into cursing Christ showed the power of Rome just as much as one tossed in the air by a raging bull. “Swear by the fortune of Caesar;” the proconsul said, “change your mind; say, ‘Away with the atheists!” The proconsul called Polycarp an “atheist” because he did not believe in the Roman gods, but the saint turned the tables on the argument. Gesturing toward the crowd, he looked up to heaven and shouted, “Away with the atheists!” That was the end. The proconsul ordered Polycarp to be stripped naked and burned alive, much to the delight of the crowd.But much to the dismay of the crowd, the fire did not touch him. Instead of burning flesh, the smell of incense wafted through the air. The proconsul wanted a screaming victim to show the might of the empire. Instead, they got a dignified saint. Polycarp just stood there, a paragon of the virtues Roman parents tried to pass on to their children – bravery and an unflinching commitment to one’s superior. Polycarp stubbornly refused to scream in anguish; refused to try to escape; refused to die.
Defeated by the faith of the old bishop, the proconsul ordered him stabbed, and so much blood flowed from his side that it extinguished the fire that refused to lick his feet (John 19:34).
When I teach my students about the early church’s admiration for the martyrs, I explain to them that Polycarp was not special because he was martyred. He was martyred because he was special. To the bishop’s flock, it was obvious that he was chosen by God to put to shame the Devil’s proxy – Rome – which unjustly killed Christians, just as Rome had killed their Lord. True, the bishop fled the first time, but this was out of obligation to his church. Though he could have fled the second time, he let himself be caught. He knew that he had been chosen to die like the same one who said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). The soldiers had found him; “God’s will be done.”
The virtue Polycarp displayed in the flames only looked like courage. It was actually something deeper. The Christians who left us the story of Polycarp also mentioned another man who had volunteered to be a martyr. This man was certain of his courage, but when he was actually confronted with a gruesome death before the cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd, he relented. He took a pinch of incense between his thumb and forefinger, sprinkled it on the altar in the name of Caesar, and cursed the name of Christ. Christians believed that a person could not choose to be a martyr. She had to be chosen. Courage will not get a person through the flames because courage comes from within. Courage and pride are not far from each other.Polycarp was something different. Polycarp did not have an abundance of courage, but he did have an abundance of faith. He trusted himself completely to the will of God, and only by doing that was he able to pass the test. Only faith is capable of the kind of trust that looks to the undiscerning eye like courage.
The church does not record and pass on stories of martyrs to entertain or distract us. We tell stories of martyrs so that we can learn to be like Jesus. The word martyr means “witness.” In evangelical vernacular, that word is a synonym for “proselytize.” It means handing out tracts. But for the early church, to witness to Jesus meant to die. Their tracts were written in buckets of blood.
Luke adds the word “daily” to Mark’s verse about taking up our cross. Daily take up your cross. Daily die. The church is the school of martyrdom. We pray, we fast, we give alms, so that we may put others before ourselves, even to the point of death. The church is our gladiatorial gymnasium, and every day we train to die.When I picture Polycarp, I have a hard time seeing him with a gun in his hands. “God’s will be done,” after all. I do not question the faith of my sisters and brothers who believe in their right to bear arms. (I own three guns myself.) God knows, I am a sinner with my own problems! Still, if they feel obliged to carry a weapon with them “for protection,” I invite them to consider if they are preparing for the right kind of combat. I am not a pacifist. I do not know how far “turning the other cheek” should go, practically speaking. But even if letting a person strike us is only an ideal, is not carrying a loaded gun tantamount to denying the ideal from the get go? It seems like giving up any chance of death, first thing in the morning. If we believe God’s will should be done, then I do not think we have any business carrying weapons. After all, Polycarp would not have been a martyr if he had died in a shootout with the Roman military. Killing is never a good witness, and if being a Christian means learning to be a martyr, then a follower of Jesus should always be more prepared to die than kill.
The preceding has been adapted from an upcoming broadcast for Things Not Seen radio.