Since the very earliest recorded human history, publicly standing up for beliefs may have resulted in physical or mental suffering, perhaps even death. Scripture recounts opposition to Hebrew leaders, prophets, and early Christians. Jesus’ preaching and arguments with Jewish leaders led to his torture and death. Before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE, Christians were persecuted for their beliefs. Early Christians knew that suffering awaited them for publicly stating their faith.
After Christianity was legalized in Roman territories, persecutions did not cease. Those who opposed or disagreed with Church teachings suffered along with unbelievers. The new Christian majority then persecuted Jewish and Islamic minorities, in addition to Christians the Church classified as heretics. The once suffering Christian minority turned into the majority who inflicted suffering on others. Such is the irony of human history.
In the western world, religious freedom is taken for granted. Postmodern Christianity is on the decline and most democratic countries do not interfere with religious organizations because their citizens value freedom and tolerance. The United States Supreme Court occasionally adjudicates religious freedom cases, but these are fringe matters that test the constitutional boundaries. The right to worship and speak openly on theological subjects is supported within the United States and other western nations. People freely pass out religious materials without being persecuted. However, this was not the case throughout most of Christian history.
Religious persecutions continue in some countries. Freedom of speech and religion is not a basic human right in totalitarian societies. Those that oppose the state face persecution today. Countries with non-Christian state religions persecute the Christian minority. For example, Christian worship is allowed in Saudi Arabia, but only within private compounds such as ex-pat communities. But if a Muslim Saudi citizen converts to Christianity, he or she receives the death penalty, just like during some periods of Roman history. Some things remain the same despite human advances.
On 11 May 2022, Cardinal Joseph Zen, age 90, was arrested by the Hong Kong police force’s national security department for alleged “collusion” with foreign powers. Each year, Cardinal Zen attended the Tiananmen Square Massacre remembrance that occurred on 4 June 1989. He retired as the Sixth Bishop of Hong Kong in 2009 but remained active in the pro-democracy movement. He argued that religious freedom can only occur in a society that guaranteed freedom. Thus, support for the pro-democracy Hong Kong movement is essential for Christians.
Cardinal Zen’s arrest resulted in intense condemnation from world leaders and the Catholic Church. After being detained and interrogated, he was released on bail and his passport was confiscated. Why does a retired 90-year-old man stand up to the Chinese government? Why does he not remain quiet during his last days on earth? Cardinal Zen glances backwards for understanding but always looks forward for inspiration. His life on earth is a witness to the coming Kingdom. Instead of living a life of ease, he faces suffering. Instead of joining the powerful and wealthy, he visits the sick, poor, and imprisoned. He does not wish for suffering but accepts it as a part of being a follower of Christ.
Cardinal Zen follows a long line of Christians who faced suffering. Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (69-155 CE) died at the age of 86, well past the normal lifespan during the ancient Roman Empire. He converted to Christianity when Jesus’ disciples were still alive, and the New Testament was being written. Polycarp refused to burn incense to the Roman emperor, deemed a god, which was a crime punished by death. Instead of just living the retired life, he refused to worship the emperor. He was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear. On the day of his death, he was recorded as saying: “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” (Paolo O. Pirlo, My First Book of Saints, Quality Catholic Publications, 1997, 58–59)
Many Christians in the United States do not associate suffering with their faith. Some believe that faith results in prosperity. But history reveals a more complex narrative. It is true that some faithful have experienced a wonderful life without suffering. However, many have suffered for their religious beliefs and did nothing wrong except defy the powerful. Jesus Christ stated this fact: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-20)