play offense

This is part four of a five part series.

A third lesson from Tertullian’s Apology is that he didn’t merely defend the Christians from Roman calumnies but he aggressively put the Romans back on their heels.

For instance, the Romans accused the Christians of committing incest, but Tertullian noted there is a better chance that incest happens with the Romans. Their roving promiscuity creates babies around the empire, so their children might be marrying half brothers or sisters and not even know it.

He wrote: “Even now reflect what opportunity there is for mistakes leading to incestuous comminglings—your promiscuous looseness supplying the materials. You first of all expose your children, that they may be taken up by any compassionate passer-by, to whom they are quite unknown; or you give them away, to be adopted by those who will do better to them the part of parents. Well, some time or other, all memory of the alienated progeny must be lost; and when once a mistake has been made, the transmission of incest thence will still go on—the race and the crime creeping on together. Then, further, wherever you are—at home, abroad, over the seas—your lust is an attendant, whose general indulgence, or even its indulgence in the most limited scale, may easily and unwittingly anywhere beget children, so that in this way a progeny scattered about in the commerce of life may have intercourse with those who are their own kin, and have no notion that there is any incest in the case. A persevering and steadfast chastity has protected us from anything like this:  keeping as we do from adulteries and all post-matrimonial unfaithfulness, we are not exposed to incestuous mishaps (chap. 9).”

Tertullian said the Romans accuse the Christians of sacrilege, when actually they are the ones who regularly offend their gods. The Romans worship many gods, which means they are offending the ones they aren’t worshipping when they worship the others. They also hammer and chisel their gods into shape, which causes them to suffer at their hands. What kind of god is this? (chap. 12, 13).

Neither is their worship sincere. Tertullian said their worship is “when you offer the worn-out, the scabbed, the corrupting; when you cut off from the fat and the sound the useless parts, such as the head and the hoofs, which in your house you would have assigned to the slaves or the dogs; when of the tithe of Hercules you do not lay a third upon his altar (I am disposed rather to praise your wisdom in rescuing something from being lost)….” Tertullian praised the Romans for being smart enough to worship half-heartedly. The silly stories they tell about their Greek gods are proof their deities are unworthy of honor (chap. 14).

How does this apply today? Christians understandably feel cowed into silence. The more we speak up the more we are told we are whiners who have brought these consequences upon ourselves. In response, many Christians have fallen into self-shaming. If only we were less judgmental, hypocritical, and homophobic, the culture would love Jesus more. Maybe. We will always have room for improvement, but the world crucified Jesus the last time he was here. Jesus told us to expect similar treatment, regardless how many cakes we bake (Jesus didn’t actually say the last line, but neither did he say to bake two!)

We must continually monitor our motives, as it is easy to respond out of selfishness and spite at those who seem bent on taking away our freedoms, jobs, and organizations. We must act in love, seeking the best for them. But assuming our motives are pure, we should go on the offense, demonstrating the logical holes in their argument and making the case for marriage and freedom of speech, religion, and association.

I’m not sure that logic will win the day, though, as it seems in short supply even among Christians (see the two cake meme). We would do better to tell stories. The other side excels at this—“Meet Jeff and Jerry. Two guys who love each other and just want to be together, like any other couple. Don’t you think it’s mean to not bake them a cake?”

As the body count begins to mount, the religious freedom side has stories too, and we must tell them. “Meet Barronnelle, a kind grandma who employs and loves gay people, even the man who is suing her. Do you think she should lose her business, her home, and her life’s savings because she won’t violate her conscience? Is this the country you want to live in? What happens when the next conscience is yours?”

Let’s work hard not to be offensive. Always ask, “How would the person I’m trying to persuade hear what I’m about to say next?” But do speak up. A majority of Americans still believe in freedom of religion, speech, and association, but we will squander this lead if we are too afraid to score.

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