The Cost of Saying, "I am a Christian"…Then and Now

The Houston Chronicle featured the moving story of a young woman persecuted for her Christian faith.  Sixteen-year-old Julie Afab was working in an office in Pakistan.  A man who came to the office was offended by the silver cross she wore around her neck and asked her, “Are you a Christian?”  When she answered, “Yes, sir”, he asked her several more times, and she answered the same each time until she asked in frustration, “Didn’t you hear me?”  The man angrily walked out of the office, but returned half an hour later with a bottle of battery acid, which he threw at her face.  Julie ran for the door to escape, but another man caught her and the two men poured the acid down her throat.  Julie’s face and esophagus were deeply burned; her eyelids and one eye were destroyed.  Through the help of Christians, Julie was able to receive asylum in the United States and medical treatment.  Over the last decade, she has had 31 surgeries.

Before leaving Pakistan, a Christian bishop told her, “If you forgive them, your wound will heal without any medication.  You can heal from the inside out.”  Julie has forgiven her attackers, has learned English, recently graduated from the University of Houston and became a U.S. citizen.  Now 28, she realizes, “There is a reason God gave me life. I don’t want to miss one second of it.”[1] Julie is one of the more recent in a long line of Christian women over the centuries who have faced persecution and suffering for their faith, yet calmly and courageously maintained, “I am a Christian.”

She was not the first to be persecuted for uttering those very words. By the second century, Christianity had spread to Gaul (modern France), apparently brought by Christians from Asia Minor.  The first evidence we have of Christianity’s existence in Gaul is a letter written from Lyon to Christians in Asia about the martyrdom of Christians in Lyon and Vienne in 177.  The letter is preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.[2]   The townspeople had become increasingly hostile to Christians, attacking them with stones, assembling mobs to rob them and preventing them from appearing in the markets, baths, or anywhere in public.  Some of the servants of Christians were seized and, under torture, falsely accused the Christians of cannibalism and incest.

When Christians were brought into the forum for questioning, some recanted under pressure, while others were imprisoned and tortured.  Those who survived torture were sent to the arena to be tormented before the people.  The last in the group to suffer in the arena was a woman named Blandina.

Though a slave, Blandina’s witness was bold, showing that Christ uses the weak and obscure to bring great glory to Himself. After being tormented and watching others suffer cruel deaths, Blandina was suspended on a stake in the arena and left to be devoured by wild beasts.  When the beasts ignored her and didn’t come near, she was taken down and cast again into prison.  One observer described Blandina as “small and weak and despised yet clothed with Christ the mighty and conquering Athlete.” Her courage was a source of inspiration to the other prisoners and astonished the crowd:

Her entire body was mangled and broken, and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to destroy life, not to speak of so many and so great sufferings.  But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession, and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her suffering was in exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us…”

Finally, on the last day, Blandina was brought out with Ponticus, a fifteen year old boy.  Blandina was scourged, thrown to wild animals, and placed on a red hot seat so that her flesh was burned.  Finally, she was placed in a net and thrown in front of a bull.  The bull tossed her about like a ball, but “feeling none of the things which were happening to her, on account of her hope…her communion with Christ,” she died. The heathens themselves observed that “never among them had a woman endured so many and such terrible tortures.”  The persecutors exposed the bodies of the martyrs for six days, then burned them to ashes and threw them into the Rhone River, thinking to remove all trace of them from the earth and make the hope of a resurrection impossible!

Our persecutions or suffering may be different from those of Julie and Blandina, yet the peace and confidence we can have in Christ is the same as theirs. 

As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” From that assurance, Paul concluded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Whatever the trials, difficulties, or persecutions, we too can be assured that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – neither “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword….No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that nether death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor power, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Rom 8:35-39).

The Amphitheater in Lyon where Blandina was martyred.

 

[1] Susan Carroll, “Her cross to bear,” Houston Chronicle, July 8, 2012, A1, A22; “From victim to victorious,” Houston Chronicle, August 1, 2012, B1.

[2] Eusebius. Ecclesiastical history V.1.