Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the array of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle. -–Theodoret, Eccles. Hist., V.xxvi
This story comes down to us through the fifth-century church historian Theodoret. Nothing else is known of this otherwise obscure monk Telemachus, who around the year A.D. 404 felt he had had enough of needless bloodshed in the arena and resolved to do something about it. It was a courageous act, and one that cost him his life. Perhaps if his sacrifice had had no impact on the continuation of gladiatorial combat, his name might not have come down to us. But his death did have an impact, a lasting one.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
St. Ambrose, a contemporary of Telemachus, was not an obscure monk, but bishop of Milan, which was at that time one of the capitals of the Roman empire. He was a powerful, magnetic speaker, under whose preaching the young St. Augustine was converted. Even though he was friend and mentor to the emperor, Ambrose did not use his proximity to power for selfish ends or merely to prop up the status quo. Instead, he used his influence to establish justice and further the kingdom of God. On one occasion the emperor Theodosius I had ordered the slaughter of some 7,000 Thessalonians in reprisal for an uprising. When Theodosius returned in triumph, Ambrose sent him a firm but respectful letter informing him that the bishops were outraged at such unnecessary carnage and that he should not expect to receive the sacrament. Indeed, Ambrose went so far as to say that he could not celebrate mass in the emperor’s presence until Theodosius had repented and sought forgiveness for such a crime. Church history is filled with such stories of courage and martyrdom to inspire us.
As the church, the body of Christ, the earthly representation of our Lord and his ministry, we have a duty to speak up and speak out against injustice, greed, bloodshed, violence and oppression.
At this very moment in the Amazon region of Peru, the lives and lifestyles of tens of thousands of indigenous people are being threatened by the avarice of government officials working hand in hand with developers and multinational (including American) corporations, who wish to plunder this rich tribal land of its resources. In its greed, the Peruvian government failed to consult with tribal leaders before it began selling off the oil and logging rights to these ancestral lands. When they stood up to protest, the indigenous were labeled “savages,” “opponents of progress” who “should be wiped of the face of the earth.” Sound familiar? Now these people are locked in a life and death struggle with police, who are attempting to maintain “order” in the region so that President Garcia and his cronies can make good their agreements with these corporations. Several police and demonstrators have been killed in recent clashes.
In our own country a recent poll shows that the majority of regular churchgoers believe that torture is sometimes or always justified. Corporate greed continues to swallow more and more of the GNP, while the lot of the poor grows more and more dire. The rich are bailed out on the backs of an already overburdened middle class. Despite promises to the contrary, the present administration continues the policy of its predecessor in apprehending and detaining foreign nationals without charges and without trial. I’ve even heard or read some Christians commenting, “We should bomb Iran,” or “Wipe the terrorists off the face of the earth.”
When democracy is threatened and human and civil rights trampled, when avarice goes unchecked, and violence and military force are held up as a first response, where is the church? Where is her voice?
Why the silence? It is a fact of fallen human nature that when we benefit from a system, however unjust it may be, we are disinclined to rock the boat. Though the church of Jesus Christ should be a watchdog of freedom, equality, and human rights, too often in history she has found herself as a lapdog for the rich and powerful. Though she should have led the fight with prophetic voice, she has too frequently found herself on the wrong side of the battle over privilege and the status quo. No wonder Marx held Christianity up as an opiate of the people. But that is not the faith I see when I read Scripture or the history of the early church.
Again, Dr. King:
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
The world is waiting, Christians. But it will not wait forever.
I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one.–Ezekiel 22:30,31