By Stanley Hauerwas
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, a movement committed to providing a place for the homeless to sleep, to feeding the hungry, and to ending war, when told some were planning a campaign to have her made a saint is said to have responded, “you’re not going to get rid of me that easily.” Day’s response, a quite understandable response, reflects the widespread presumption that saints are very, very holy people. That they are very, very holy people suggests, moreover, that saints rise above all conflict and controversy.
Dorothy Day, an extremely pious convert to Catholicism, was not about to let her life be so understood. She was a fighter against injustice. She challenged the presumption that we, and particularly the rich, could do what we want with our money. She was often arrested because of her active protests against war. If holiness meant that saints were above the fray, then Day certainly did not want to be a saint. Dorothy Day, who died in 1980 and is now in the process the Catholic Church has developed for discerning saints, was a very tough lady whose toughness was made necessary by her gentle love of Christ and the poor.
I call attention to Dorothy Day to remind us that our assumptions about what makes a saint often fail to attend to the extraordinary diversity of the people the Church has named as saints. Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians, as well as his second letter to the Corinthians, by addressing all the members of those churches as “the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Paul seems to have assumed being a Christian and being a saint were one in the same. That assumption no doubt reflected Paul’s presumption that to be a Christian meant you were ready to die for the faith.
When the church came under persecution in the first centuries following the death of Jesus, saints began to be identified with those who were martyrs. Saints, therefore, not only were killed rather than be unfaithful to Christ but they often died like him. After Roman persecution came to an end, many Christians found another form of life they thought to be in continuity with martyrdom: the slow martyrdom of ascetical life in which one dies to sin so that Christ may live. Such an understanding of sainthood shares with the martyrs a refusal to compromise with worldly powers. It is no wonder that given the identification of sainthood with both martyrs and ascetics, Christians increasingly began to assume that saints live extraordinary —almost beyond belief — lives.
That martyrs and ascetics are considered holy does not mean, however, that they are not tough and often difficult people. They are very tough and oftentimes very difficult to get along with. Just ask yourself — would you really want to have Saint Paul for a friend? Paul’s unrelenting passion for the Gospel, his unwillingness to compromise, his judgmental attitude about how we should live, his refusal to let the threat of death deter his mission, I suspect would, for many of us, make him a rather tiresome companion. Paul does not seem to understand that most of us have to get on with the everyday business of life. Or consider Saint Francis. We celebrate his preaching to the birds, but his rigorous commitment to poverty was, at the time, seen for what it was — that is, a profound challenge to the riches of the Church.
Often it is non-Christians who best understand how threatening those we Christians identify as saints may be. Rome did not persecute and kill Christians for no reason. Of course, in the earliest years of the life of the church, Christians were not on the Roman radar screen. Christians were not numerous, and they were largely from social and economic classes of little or no significance, which meant the Roman elites had little reason to recognize their existence. If Christians were noticed by the Romans, it was but one more instance of the variety of weird people that were the result of Roman conquest. Christians were no threat to Rome, though they worship somebody who had been killed by Rome.
In the second century, Christians were noticed by Pliny, an upper-class Roman official who served under Emperor Trajan. Pliny found Christians hard to understand but reported to Trajan that is far as he could tell they were but one of the countless clubs organized to deal with issues of common concern. These clubs were not only numerous but diverse, often organized around commercial land property interests. Some of these associations were funerary societies whose purpose was to provide burial expenses for members who had died as well as ensuring that the dead received a decent burial. Pliny reported to Trajan let the Christians were some form of burial society.
Pliny’s characterization of the Church as a burial society was not quite right, but it is surprisingly accurate. We are a burial society if, as is certainly the case, baptism is the heart of our life together, For it is surely the case that we are a people who refuse to let death determine our relation to one another. Through baptism we are made participants in the communion of saints, which means we refuse to let the power of death determine our ongoing relationship with those who have made our lives possible. We happily remember the saints and through that memory we are made participants in that great communion that surrounds God’s throne.
People constituted by such a memory could not help but come into conflict with Rome. Christians refused Rome’s presumption that the only memory that mattered was how you were remembered by eternal Rome. There were many reasons Christians were eventually killed by Rome, not the least being the Church’s challenge to the Roman presumption that only Rome could determine the significance of life. The Christian challenge only intensified and confounded the Romans who simply could not comprehend that Rome could not defeat the Christians by killing them.
Of course, Christians well understood that Rome had power over life and death, but the very fact that the Christian dead were called martyrs meant Rome had lost. To me a martyr, to be a saint, meant Rome could kill Christians for being Christian but Rome could not determine the meaning of their deaths. The meaning of their deaths, the meaning of our deaths, is determined in baptism. That Christians could be “happily remembered” by the Church was the ultimate challenge to Rome. To be so remembered means these lives are constituted by a narrative in which Christ is at the center.
Put differently, it is important to remember that the martyr and saint cannot know they are a martyr or a saint on their own. They only know there are martyr or saint when God, and the Church in obedience to God, tells them who they are. Listen again to the marvelous passage from the Wisdom of Solomon.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever.
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect. (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9)
This passage from the Wisdom of Solomon applies not only to martyrs and saints. It describes all of us. None of us knows who we are until God tells us. That we only discover who we are when God tells us is why, as we learn from our sainted martyrs, we may be killed but we cannot be victimized. Victims, even if they have been in some sense liberated, remain captive just to the extent they continue to think of themselves as victims. To continue to think of oneself as a victim lets the oppressor win. As Christians we refuse to let our enemies determine who we are because we have learned to recognize ourselves first and foremost through the communion of saints. Holiness is shorthand for saying we have been saved by being made part of an extraordinary community that refuses to let the oppressor determine who we are.
That is why Christians under persecution often gather to worship god of the tombs of the martyrs. They did so because just as the lives and deaths of the martyrs witness to the life of Christ, so Christians believe that by drawing near the martyrs, they drew near to heaven itself. Thus the inscription on the tomb of Martin of Tours reads: “Here lies Martin the bishop, of holy memory, whose soul is in the hand of God, but he is fully here present and made plain in the miracles of every kind.” They clung to Martin because they believed he was a person of power who would protect them from those who would persecute them the protection Martin provided was real, offering as it must the possibility that even their persecutors might be reconciled to God.
By now I assume it is obvious that the celebration of All Saints is the celebration of the lives and deaths of those who have gone before. It is not by accident that our scripture passages for this morning are death-determined. The “All” of All Saints is the acknowledgement by the church that we do not know the names of all those who have lived and died to make possible what we are about to do, that is, baptize these children into the death and resurrection of Christ. We do not know, but we hope that those we baptized this day will not be persecuted or killed for what we are about to do for them. But we also know that even if they have to suffer for the faith they will be surrounded by that throng of saints like Dorothy Day, Martin of Tours, and Paul the Apostle, people who make up the tough and difficult people we know populate that great multitude called the communion of saints.
Dr. Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity. This sermon is published in Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church (2013), and is used with permission.