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Saint Stephen, the Law of the Cross, and a Church that Would Rather Die than Kill

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Acts 7:60

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:5

It is always striking to me how the octave of Christmas moves directly from the Feast of the Nativity into today’s feast of St. Stephen, the proto-martyr, from tidings of comfort and joy to gritted teeth and stopped-up ears as the message of the incarnate Word meets opposition and hostility. Increasingly, I believe that this is no mere accident of history, nor simply the way the feasts happen to have developed, but rather a profound expression of the meaning of the Christmas message (It is, of course, how they happened to develop, but I believe there’s a lesson to be learned and taken to heart here as well.)

In the death of the proto-martyr, we find a deliberate echo of the death of Jesus. It is no accident that Luke, who records Stephen’s martyrdom with its prayer for his killers, is also the evangelist who records Jesus’ plea from the cross that his killers be forgiven. Stephen reproduces in his living and his dying that which Jesus came to disclose and accomplish.

Of late, I’ve been occupied with a theological proposal from the late great Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, who in his explication of the redemption wrote:

This is why the Son of God became [human], suffered, died, and was raised again: because divine wisdom has ordained and divine goodness has willed, not to do away with the evils of the human race through power, but to convert those same evils into a supreme good according to the just and mysterious law of the cross.[1]

By the law of the cross, Jesus did not return evil for evil, but rather continued to do good in the face of evil. By the law of the cross, rather than calling the legion of angels to come to his aid, or coming down from the cross when taunted to prove himself, Jesus bore with us in love so that our greatest evil, the crucifixion of the Son of God, could be turned into a supreme good: redemption, a redemption that takes the form of our being converted to the way of love shown in Jesus and bound together by that same love as members of his body.

It is, at least ideally, according to this same law that the Church, the community of the suffering servant, lives its life and carries out its mission. In fact, the law of the cross “the one … single feature” that enables the Church to participate in the mission of God.[2]

In other words, whatever “success” the Church has in expanding its membership, or in shaping the wider culture and society, must either conform to the law of the cross or be deemed a failure on the Church’s part, a betrayal of its calling. When we carry out our mission by coercion, imposition, manipulation — anything other than the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen and the witness of lives conformed to that pattern — we act faithlessly. Even if we are right about the ends we pursue (something that the cross should challenge us not to assume), when we pursue those ends by violent means, we fail.

By contrast, Stephen’s martyrdom shows the law of the cross coming to term in one who is Christ’s own and it discloses something about our calling as the Church in all times and all places. A Church that lives according to the law of the cross would rather die than kill.

Alas, how infrequently have we lived according to that vocation. Often enough the church has been a killer, whether directly and literally or in less direct, more metaphorical, but no less real ways. Even when not properly ecclesiastical, the wars of religion, the colonial project, engagement in the slave trade, were undertaken by Christian people and, often enough, in the name of the gospel. More recently, the abuse crises that roil churches have shown us to be communities that are all too willing to kill in the service of illusions of self-preservation.

Do we stand alongside, in solidarity with, and at the service of vulnerable populations? Or do we stand by as they are ground underfoot by destructive policies that make their lives unlivable, or as hateful rhetoric that all too often leads to violence against them pervades our culture, perhaps even voting the architects of those policies into office, or contributing to the rhetoric ourselves?[3]

I won’t belabor this further. I don’t want to chide, because it is Christmas time — a season of glad tidings and great joy — but we must also remember the reason for the season. Christ became one of us, lived among us, died, and rose for us in order to introduce the law of the cross into the human race.

Any number of anxieties characterize churches as we reckon with a changing world. The change is manifold: Cultural shifts that challenge our traditional understandings of how the world works, of what it means to be a human being, of how relationships are rightly ordered; reckonings with the harms baked into our society, harms in which churches have played their own role; growing secularization and ecclesial decline following upon the interactions of these other factors.

Perhaps some of these factors are genuine threats. Even in such cases, shouldn’t we rather die, rather lose our way of life, than preserve ourselves or that way of life at the cost of others’ lives?

Unless and until that is the case, we will not have fully embraced the message of Christmas, for it’s the same message that led the babe of Bethlehem to Golgotha. St. Stephen shows us how the meaning of Christmas takes hold in one’s life. This is not a call to go seeking martyrdom, of course. Stephen didn’t do that, nor did Jesus. So, yes, continue with your Christmas joy and festivity. There is so much to celebrate, for salvation has come to our world. But that salvation has a particular shape, one which cannot be escaped, not if we would know this Savior.

The coming of Christ brings us good news, but the good news is that none of us can or will avoid the cross, not even by imposing it on others.

So, while it is not a key to seek martyrdom or suffering, it is a call to so thoroughly embrace the way of Jesus that we live according to the law of the cross, even if that means dying according to the law of the cross. For this is “none other than the way of life and peace.”

[1] Bernard J.F. Lonergan, The Redemption, ed. Robert M. Doran, Jeremy Wilkins, and H. Daniel Monsour, trans. Michael Shields, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan 9 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 197.

[2] Robert M. Doran, Theology and the Dialectics of History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 109.

[3] I began writing this essay before the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, but with resurgent anti-LGBTQ legislation and rhetoric in mind. That event leads me to put a finer point on the matter: Whatever one’s views on developing understandings of gender and sexuality in our culture or the churches’ proper response to them, it is incumbent upon all of us to work against demonization of or harm to the LGBTQ community. While I reject the idea that LGBTQ people are a threat to the church or its witness — many of them are the church and their witness is the church’s witness — even if they were, the rest of us ought rather die than to kill. One need not adopt an affirming view to oppose such harm, and, if anything, the responsibility is amplified for those who maintain a conservative view. The applicability of the question extends beyond the LGBTQ community, to any vulnerable population.


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