Peaceful protest, and the right to dissent, are encoded in our democratic constitution. The NFL controversies (see: NYTimes on NFL ) are sparking new debates about this freedom. Where does peaceful protest, such as the NFL players demonstrate by kneeling rather than standing during patriotic anthems, constitute a healthy freedom? Where do such gestures undermine civic unity and become disloyal or unpatriotic?
From a Christian standpoint, similar democratic rights are enshrined in early Christian accounts. The Roman governor Pliny the Younger (in 112 CE) wrote to the Roman emperor Trajan about disciplinary problems, in his territories, concerning Christians (see: Pliny’s Letter on Christians ) who confess to being Christian. Pliny wants to know whether the mere name of Christian is sufficient to be deemed a crime or whether it is only crimes (in conjunction with this self-appellation) that may give cause for legal suspicions. The Christians are innocent in their practices (see Pliny’s description of their practices below). What then gave the Romans reason to criminalize Christianity? Such that to belong to this sect (this “superstition”) would constitute a crime?
As the martyrdom accounts show, it was the Christian refusal to offer obeisance and sacrifices to the emperor that incurred civil rebuke. Christians made peaceful protests against what they viewed as monarchic abuses in the Roman imperial regime. They offered worship to God alone not to a human ruler.
The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, a second century text, exhibits in stock scene the trial of early Christian martyrs who refused to offer obeisance or sacrifices to the emperor. (See excerpt below).
As a country, the USA was founded upon democratic protests against monarchic abuses. Surely, the people ought to exercise these freedoms, while our president could squarely confront rather than punishing such critique. Christianity was founded upon a similar right to critique authoritarian regimes while offering devotion to God alone.
From the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felictas : Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’ ‘I will not’, I retorted. ‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus. And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’ When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for his pathetic old age. Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.
From Pliny’s Letter: re Early Christian practices.
That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition.