I read through the entire Old Testament for the first time in my life. I was struck by how “Jewish” it is. I don’t just mean the obvious—that it is by Jews and about Jews. What had struck me is how realistic, feet-on-the-ground, unsentimental, non-ethereal the Jewish attitude to life is. The Christians I grew up with were not like that. No matter what happened—I remember the cat knocking over a lamp—my great aunt Ruth, a very sweet and wonderful lady, had the same response: “Praise the Lord!” A school can burn down and a Christian might say, “Thank God it wasn’t a school day.” If it was school day, they would say, “Thank God it was during recess.” The Jews I know, as well as those in the Old Testament, don’t talk that way. When things are bad, they don’t pretend they are good. When they have a complaint, they voice it guiltlessly. They even argue with God and sometimes, as when Abraham persuades God to save Sodom if it contains “ten righteous men,” they win the argument.
By contrast, I had been reading The Early Christians in Their Own Words, by Eberhard Arnold. The writings are from a time when Christians, like Jews before them, refused to bow to Roman gods and were viciously persecuted. “What a beautiful sight it is for God,” writes one, “when a Christian wrestles with pain; when he takes up the fight against threats, capital punishment, and torture; when smiling he mocks at the clatter of the tools of death and the horror of the executioner … For he is the victor who has reached the goal of his aspirations.”
Another describes how Christians face death. “Cut by scourges until the anatomy of the body was visible, even to the veins and arteries, they endured everything. Even the spectators pitied and bewailed them. The noble martyrs of Christ attained such towering strength of soul that not one of them uttered a cry or groan. They proved to all of us that in the hour of their torture they were free of the body, or rather that the Lord himself stood by them and talked with them.” Others long for “the crown of martyrdom.” “It is our wish to be martyred for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ and so be saved.”
“Lord, is this early Christian extremism justified? Isn’t it too other-worldly?”
It was a great, very great, profound, trembling effort to create on earth the ideal brotherhood. It lacked realism but it was filled with great and genuine love. It was not, as you tend to think, fanatical. It was devotional.
“The desire to die?”
No, that is a misreading. They desired to glorify God, to imitate Christ, to serve Me, but not to die as such. They went through extraordinary suffering—so great it is almost shameful for you to question it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the course of worldly renunciation and love, but it is not required (of all). Some must fight and defend the others. But it was a corrective, a balancing to Old Testament war, conquest, and vengeance. There will come a time—a long time from now—when unrequited love will be common.
“You mean ‘unrelenting’ love?”
Yes—unselfish, sharing, uninhibited love.
“If that is long time off, then whatever is done by people living now will not be directly related to—in fact, will be irrelevant to—bringing it about.” I found this thought distressing. What we do won’t matter.
That is not quite right. The human story will be very long. Every step along the way is important. History has to be lived through. You can’t start out at the final chapter. What happens in Chapter Three is just as important.