The New Testament reading in today’s lectionary line-up is the stoning of Stephen from the Book of Acts. This reminds me of a brief conversation I had with a Benedictine monk a decade ago. “Happy Stoning Day!” Brother John said as he greeted me after noon prayer the day after Christmas. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, officially designated as the first Christian martyr. Brother John, a guitar-picking, out-of-the-box product of the sixties, is not your typical Benedictine. “I’ve always wanted to play Dylan’s ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ at mass on St. Stephen’s Day.” My kind of monk—irreverence is my favorite virtue.
Stephen has always been a problem for me. Although Acts has been one of my favorite books of the Bible since childhood, with its exciting stories of early Christians acting just like imperfect and flawed human beings, regularly bailed out of tough circumstances by the Holy Spirit, I used to get uncomfortable when Stephen came up in church or Sunday School. Stephen died for Jesus, just like some missionaries in South America that we were always hearing about. “Would you die for Jesus, just like Stephen did?” the pastor or teacher would ask, to which I (internally) would definitively answer “Hell No!” Dying for Jesus ranked right up there with becoming a missionary to deepest, darkest Africa as things I definitely did NOT intend to do with my life. If being a good Christian meant being willing to die for Jesus, I thought, then maybe I should check out what they do at the Catholic church on the other, spiritually mysterious side of town.
Little did I know then that Catholics have been making martyrdom into a cottage industry for centuries. Although I’m much more aware of it now, since I’ve been married to a cradle Catholic and have taught in Catholic institutions of higher education for the past thirty-plus years, my few remaining Protestant sensibilities are still occasionally jangled by the Catholic fixation on martyrs. Just a few years ago I burst out laughing when I stumbled across a very peculiar piece of artwork while looking around a little church in Boston’s North End. Peculiar in the sense that it was a statue of a demure young woman holding a plate with two eyeballs on it. “Oh yeah, that’s Saint Lucy,” Jeanne said in the same tone of voice with which she might have gestured in my direction and said “Oh yeah, that’s my husband” to an inquiring stranger. Saint Lucy is either the patron saint of opticians or disgusting hors d’oeuvres, I suppose.
Philosophy has only one martyr—Socrates, the godfather of Western philosophy. And there is at least one very interesting parallel between Socrates and Stephen. They both clearly were looking to die. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is so inflammatory that he’s got the crowd “gnashing their teeth” by the time he’s done. For some reason, the audience did not take kindly to being called “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” or “the betrayers and murderers” of God.
Similarly, Socrates’ defense against trumped-up but serious charges in Plato’s Apology is anything but apologetic. Now he didn’t have to die. His Athenian accusers were not interested in killing him—they just wanted him to go away and stop annoying everyone. And had he played the game by the accepted rules, that’s what would have happened. Instead, he is so obnoxious and unwilling to compromise his principles that he is found guilty by a 281 to 220 vote—the Athenians liked big juries. During the subsequent sentencing portion of the trial, the unrepentant Socrates is so offensive that more jurors vote for the death penalty than voted “guilty” in the first place. A few weeks later he drinks a hemlock cocktail and dies, exhibiting the same calm and composure in the face of death as Stephen four and a half centuries later.
I love teaching philosophy and at least claim to believe, just as the godfather did, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But I’m just about certain that I would no more die for philosophy than I would have died for Jesus as a kid. My model in such things is Aristotle. About fifty years after Socrates drank the hemlock, Aristotle found himself in political trouble eerily similar to the problems that had brought Socrates to trial. Aristotle’s response was to hike up his toga and haul ass out of Athens, reportedly saying that he did not want to give the Athenians the opportunity to sin against philosophy twice. He went on to write his greatest books, was hired as Alexander the Great’s personal tutor, and no one holds it against him that he left town. I’m with Aristotle—life strikes me as an attractive alternative to death.
What things are worth dying for? I asked one of my classes that question a few years ago, and their response was both revealing and disturbing. Or their lack of response, rather—they couldn’t come up with anything. Family, friends, country, beliefs of any sort—none of my students was willing to say that she or he would be willing to die for any of these. That class, perhaps more than any other I’ve ever been in, changed me. It wasn’t that they weren’t sure which things were worth dying for—I’ve obviously struggled with that one too. It’s that the very idea of loving or believing in something so much that one would stake one’s life on it was foreign to them.
When relating this story to some friends a few days after my encounter with Brother John, one of them (a lifelong activist in various causes) reminded me of something that Dr. King said: “If you don’t have something to die for, you don’t have anything to live for” (or something like that). My students’ apathetic response to my question gave me a clear direction in my teaching that has been a focus ever since. Although over the years I’ve not embraced many of the candidates offered to me as being worth dying for, it’s always been clear to me that something is—perhaps the whole point of both the intellectual and spiritual quest is to find out what that “something” is.
Part of my teaching vocation has become convincing my students to commit to something, to believe in something, to stake their lives, at least figuratively, on the possibility of something’s being true. Learning and growth depend on it. William James once challenged a bunch of college students to “believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Sometimes commitment comes before content.
I don’t think that “everybody must get stoned”—fortunately my reality doesn’t demand a “life or death” choice of me. But I do believe that something else Socrates said while sitting in prison waiting for his execution is true—there is a difference between living and living well. The difference, I think, has more to do with seeking than finding.