Show Unto Others the Respect You Would Like Them To Show Unto You

Show Unto Others the Respect You Would Like Them To Show Unto You May 30, 2016
Icon of St. Justin Martyr by Theophanes the Cretan via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Icon of St. Justin Martyr by Theophanes the Cretan via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

But some one will say, Some have ere now been arrested and convicted as evil-doers. For you condemn many, many a time, after inquiring into the life of each of the accused severally, but not on account of those of whom we have been speaking. And this we acknowledge, that as among the Greeks those who teach such theories as please themselves are all called by the one name “Philosopher,” though their doctrines be diverse, so also among the Barbarians this name on which accusations are accumulated is the common property of those who are and those who seem wise. For all are called Christians. Wherefore we demand that the deeds of all those who are accused to you be judged, in order that each one who is convicted may be punished as an evil-doer, and not as a Christian; and if it is clear that any one is blameless, that he may be acquitted, since by the mere fact of his being a Christian he does no wrong. For we will not require that you punish our accusers; they being sufficiently punished by their present wickedness and ignorance of what is right. — St. Justin Martyr, First Apology[1]

When St. Justin Martyr wrote his apology to the Roman Emperor, Christianity was still a relatively new religion. Rumors spread throughout the empire as to what Christians believed and practiced. Unless someone had intimate contact with Christians, such rumors were readily believed. They presented Christians as being amoral lawbreakers who were causing more than a little problem for Rome. To make matters worse, various Gnostic sects who claimed affiliation with Christianity but were rejected by mainstream Christianity were not differentiated from the Apostolic faith by the Romans. While some Gnostics certainly held extreme ascetical views, and were not far off from mainstream Christianity in their praxis and beliefs, others were very libertine and their activities, when discovered, were judged by the Roman Republic to be indicative of Christianity as a whole. Therefore, to the normal Roman citizen, the suggestion that Christians lacked moral integrity was verified by the practices of such Gnostic sects, and so Christians as a whole were treated with disrespect because of the activities of those who were, at best, existed at the edges of the Christian faith.

St. Justin, who we know wrote lost books against various heresies of his day, felt the best way to address what the Romans knew and understood was to write a treatise which explored the basic elements of the Christian faith. In this way, he confronted the gossip by saying Christians promoted morality and should not be seen as a threat to the state. He could not, and would not, dispute the fact that some Christians, heretical or not, did not live up to the moral expectations of the age, but St. Justin rightfully indicated the response was not to group all Christians together with such immorality, but to judge Christians individually. He knew he would not be able to prove to the Romans all who claimed to be Christian were not following the Apostolic faith, but he did know that judgment had to be done on a rational basis, and guilt by association, by being a fallacy, was irrational. And so he told the Emperor that it is fine to judge individuals according to what they are known to have done, but no one should therefore assume the actions of any particular person as indicative of anything about the Christian faith itself unless it could be proven what they did was based upon Christian teachings themselves. Then, of course, the emperor should feel free to judge Christians as a whole – but, as St. Justin knew, the Christian faith did not approve of immorality and so, when the Christian faith was explored, the actions of a few lone individuals could not implicate any wrongdoing in regards the Christian faith as a whole.

Being a Christian, therefore, should not be seen as a crime, because being a Christian by itself did not make someone immoral and worthy of condemnation. On the other hand, being a Christian, or associated with the Christian faith, did not mean someone would automatically be virtuous. The best thing to do is judge someone on a case by case basis, and discern their character and see if they are worthy of approval or condemnation. Certainly, the Christian faith can seem unusual, can seem to be strange and foolish, but being foolish and different is not worthy of condemnation:

And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies.[2]

St. Justin would have Rome condemn as an enemy only those who act as such. Disagreeing with the ordinary citizen of Rome on matters of religious belief should not be the foundation for the criminalization of any faith. Christians, St. Justin pointed out, certainly wanted the best for the empire, and were willing to work for its benefit. Condemning Christians for being different will harm the empire, not help it, because if given religious liberty, Christians would have every reason to work for the benefit of society as a whole. Indeed, they would do so with much zeal. If, on the other hand, Rome decided to condemn Christians merely because their beliefs and practices were unusual, while not being criminal, then the end result is that many others, such as philosophers, would find their livelihood also at risk. Indeed, as St. Justin indicated in his “Second Apology,” many philosophers had been unjustly mistreated and killed in the past for this very reason:

And those of the Stoic school— since, so far as their moral teaching went, they were admirable, as were also the poets in some particulars, on account of the seed of reason [the Logos] implanted in every race of men— were, we know, hated and put to death—Heraclitus for instance, and, among those of our own time, Musonius and others. For, as we intimated, the devils have always effected, that all those who anyhow live a reasonable and earnest life, and shun vice, be hated.[3]

St. Justin’s argument was very reasonable. While we might say it is difficult for us to understand why Romans would believe all the scandalous rumors spread against Christians,  sadly, we have not really learned the lesson of history and act the same way to non-Christian faiths today the way Romans did to Christians. While St. Just gave a very coherent response which indicated the need for religious liberty – what he said, being true, was true not just for Christians but for all. We must not condemn individuals based upon strange religious beliefs, nor on unjustified rumor, nor on guilt by association, but upon proven criminal actions by those who have done them.

And yet, as a rampant xenophobia found among many Christians today shows, Christians have ignored the lessons of the past and now mistreat others in the way Christians criticized the Romans for treating them. A key example which can be brought up is Muslims in America. Many American Christians look at all Muslims with suspicion, and they believe the most outrageous claims spoken against the Muslims and use gossip to condemn all Muslims as criminals worthy of punishment. St. Justin’s apology for the Christian faith should convict Christians not to treat Muslims, or people of any other faith, the way St. Justin said Christians should not be treated. Yes, reject another faith if you do not agree with it, but do not condemn the whole of the faith based upon rumor and innuendo or on the basis of extremists, seeing them as representative of the whole. And when we find Muslims of integrity before us, we should not try to find a way to reject them and condemn them by use of polemics which entirely distort the Islamic faith. Those who do that are the real ones who are in the wrong.[4]

Let us, therefore, look to others with the good will we would like to be shown to us. That is, after all, a reflection of what Christ told us to do. Let us consider the words of St. Justin and make sure we don’t find ourselves condemned by the very words which he used to defend Christians.


[1] St. Justin Martyr, “First Apology” in ANF(1):164-5.

[2] St. Justin Martyr, “First Apology” in ANF(1):186.

[3] St. Justin Martyr, “Second Apology” in ANF(1):191.

[4] And so the principles of Nostra Aetate find themselves as being with the Christian faith since the very beginning. We are to treat everyone with respect. Vatican Council II, far from producing a new practice in regards to Christian treatment of non-Christian religions, can be shown to be as traditional as they come.

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