Like many, my first forays into ministry occurred at summer camp. I spent a lot of time at our diocesan camp doing a multiplicity of jobs. I was a camp Councillor, a “Crew” Leader (a leadership development program), a Camp-Fire leader, and an Assistant Program Director. After I was ordained, I gladly accepted invitations to be the camp chaplain during some of the programs. While all my experiences ere in some measure formational for me, my favorite times at camp involved my role as camp fire leader. With a list of songs, my guitar, and my own inability to carry a tune, it was a joy to lead these sessions with the campers.
One of the songs we would sing on a regular bases was called “I am a C.” It’s not a complicated song by any means, although you must be adept at spelling. There is only one verse repeated multiple times, although the pace quickens each time. If I wanted to get the campers involved in the campfire program, this was the song that would do it. The song goes like this:
I am a C.
I am a C.H.
I am a C.H.R.I.S.T.I.A.N
When I have C.H.R.I.S.T in my H.E.A.R.T, then I will L.I.V.E. E.T.E.R.N.A.L.L.Y.
I have been thinking about this song, not because I am reminiscing about past experiences on Thetis Island, but out of a look into the history of Christian martyrdom. As part of book study that I lead at the church, we had the opportunity to read about Perpetua – a 20 year old woman who was martyred in the year 203. Perpetua’s death was something we looked at in Seminary, but like most things, I haven’t really thought of it since graduation.
There are many fascinating elements about Perpetua’s martyrdom. For me, however, the most moving piece about her martyrdom is not the death itself, but the conversation she has with her father upon her arrest. Her father, who was not a catechumen, visits Perpetua in prison in order to persuade her to renounce her faith and leave the prison. Her response is recorded this way:
“Father,” I said, “do you see here, for example, this vase, or pitcher, or whatever it is? “I see it,” he said. “Can it be named anything else than what it really is?” I asked, and he said, “No.” “So I also cannot be anything else than what I am, a Christian.” (Source: The Martyrdom of Perpetua in “Church and Society in Documents 100-600 A.D. Alan L. Hayes, Ed. Canadian Scholars Press)
This story is by no means unique. The history of Christian martyrdom is filled with stories of bold declarations and profound speeches; such as Hugh Latimer’s “Be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.” Yet Perpetua’s response declares no high theology; there is no bold doctrine of election or salvation. There is the simple declaration of identity. Like the kids around the camp-fire, Perpetua can no more deny her Christian faith as she can deny her own self.
This got me thinking about the use of the term ‘Christian” in today’s society. For many, the word ‘Christian’ is synonymous with the negative aspects of religion and self-righteousness. Personally I am getting tired of how explaining how the depictions of ‘Christians’ on modern television bare little to no resemblance to my own relationship with Jesus. It seems as if more and more time is spent having to define what I do not mean rather than explaining what I do. Because of this, I wonder if we have developed a habit of attempting to define our faith without the use of this important label. Thus, our religious talk is peppered with words like ‘Spirituality’, ‘belief’ or ‘faith-system. After all, it’s easier to say that “I believe in “God” – a term that can be interpreted a million different ways – than say that ‘I believe in Jesus”. That’s a bit more pointed and decisive isn’t it?
I’m sure part of the issue is the multiplicity in meanings. In Perpetua’s day, the term Christian was a fairly understandable term. It means something specific and unique. In the year 200, to be a Christian was to belong to the group of people who worshiped Jesus Christ instead of Caesar. It also described certain social qualities which was observable to anyone who cared to watch. Today the term is much broader, simply because of the way in which the faith has spread throughout the world. Thus, to say “I am a Christian” is but one small part of a larger self-identifying statement: I am a Christian, by that I mean an “Evangelical/conservative/liberal-Low/high church-Anglican/Baptist/Lutheran/Catholic” – and whatever other terms we want to throw in there. But has the broadness of the term taken away from that which was its strength? Does focusing on the various differences in our faith, expressed through the use of our religious terminologies, take us away from focusing on our unity? In the endeavor to distance ourselves from people who do not represent the faith as we express it, do we lose part of the power of the all-encompassing term “Christian”?
There is something profoundly powerful about Perpetua’s declaration that she was a Christian. It was plain and simple, yet provocative and powerful. It was a statement that all people could faithfully, and proudly, assert for themselves, despite the various personalities that made up the body of the early church. Similarly, it didn’t matter which denomination, group, party, or social circle that a camper came from; they all joined their voices in joyfully expressing their shared identity.
In today’s world, how are we called to radically do the same?
What is your association with the term “Christian”? Do you like or dislike the term? When is the last time you used the term to define yourself?