Whenever I read about persecuted Christians, it's always with a request to pray for their release or rescue—a request with which I'm sometimes reluctant to comply. That's because the history of the church has shown over and over again how Christian persecution only surfaces whenever Christian communities genuinely follow Jesus, publicly living out his countercultural commandments to pursue peace and justice, fight for the poor, love enemies, speak truth, and refuse to worship the idols of culture. And the more the church is persecuted, the stronger it grows. And the stronger it grows, the more a society is challenged and exposed.
In America, think of the Great Awakenings or the Civil Rights movement. Witness too the steady transformation currently going on in China alongside the rapid growth of the church there. Or the effect Christians achieved through the One Campaign on commitments made to eliminate poverty at 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, commitments that the bombing of innocent people could never achieve or thwart.
On March 7, 203, two African women, a slave girl and an aristocrat respectively died for their faith in Jesus in the ancient North African city-state of Carthage. The details of their death have survived in a Latin text attributed to Perpetua herself. By decree of the Roman Emperor, all imperial subjects were forbidden under severe penalties to convert to Christianity. And therefore, because Felicitas and Perpetua had openly done just that, they were arrested and imprisoned. Perpetua's father pleaded with them to recant, but they would not.
While we were still under arrest my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. "Father," said I, "do you see this vase?"
"Yes, I do," said he.
I told him: "Could it be called by any other name than what it is?"
And he said: "No."
"Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am. I am a Christian."
At this my father was so angered by the word 'Christian' that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.
Naturally both women were afraid. Perpetua was a nursing mother, and over the course of her imprisonment she did consider recanting her faith for her child's sake. People would have understood. But for Perpetua, becoming a Christian had meant counting the cost. Jesus said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate her father and mother, her wife and children, her brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—she cannot be my disciple." For centuries, commentators and preachers have insisted how surely Jesus didn't really mean hate, he was just using hyperbole. You know, love him so much that your affection for your children only feels like hate. Okay. But the implications are the same. A few days later Perpetua's father again visited their dungeon and begged her by everything dear not to put this disgrace on her name.
Perpetua wrote of her father:
"Daughter," he said, "have pity on my grey head—have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you." I tried to comfort him saying: "It will all happen as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power."
At their trial, Perpetua and Felicitas adamantly refused to worship the Roman gods and acknowledge the emperor as Lord. The governor asked point blank: "Are you a Christian?" To which they each replied, "I am." They were thus condemned to be torn to pieces by wild beasts. Felicitas, who at the time of her incarceration was eight months pregnant herself, was reportedly apprehensive that she would not be permitted to die with the other condemned Christians, since the law forbade the execution of pregnant women. Perpetua recorded what happened afterward:
We her comrades in martyrdom were also saddened; for they were afraid that they would have to leave behind so fine a companion to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, they poured forth a prayer to the Lord in one torrent of common grief. And immediately after their prayer the birth pains came upon her. She suffered a good deal in her labor because of the natural difficulty of an eight months' delivery. Hence one of the assistants of the prison guards said to her: "You suffer so much now—what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to worship Caesar." "What I am suffering now," Felicitas replied, "I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who suffered for me, just as I shall suffer for him." And she gave birth to a girl; and one of the sisters brought her up as her own daughter.