One evening last week, it occurred to me that Athanasius, a favorite saint who persevered under persecution from heretics and from the state, might have something to say relevant to our current time. And, lo, I came across and read Apologia de Fuga, his pungent defense of his flight from the Arians.
It is a good read and not a long one. Athanasius had a pen that was both golden and very sharp. And he never spared heretics when using it – one reason they wanted to do him in. So do go read it for yourself soon.
Athanasius addressed the canard that he was cowardly when he fled from Arians. Part of his reply is that his Arian accusers were only upset that they did not catch him and do to him what they did to other faithful. And he documents some of the more egregious – and deadly – examples of the Arian persecution of his time.
Some guidelines in dealing with persecution after reflection upon Apologia and scripture:
It is not cowardice to take precautions and at times flee during times of persecution, particularly when more than mere self-preservation is at stake. Even our Lord did so on a number of occasions as did his parents when Jesus was a small child. Moreover, there are a number of times in scripture when the Lord commands certain of his people to flee.
One instance of this is when Jesus, while sending the twelve out to preach, instructs them that if they are persecuted in one town, flee and preach to the next. This indicates that one good motive for fleeing or other precautions is to continue and/or resume ministry.
Now, some perspective. With few exceptions, persecution in the West is not yet deadly and is unlikely to become so in the near future. So fleeing is certainly not as necessary as in other times and places. But we are at the point where precautions should be taken.
For example, does your church or business rent out space for weddings? Or does your minister marry those outside your church? I urge that such policies be reviewed and fast if one does not want to choose between participating in a same-sex wedding and a lawsuit.
I will say that some states are more hostile to religious freedom than others, Oregon and California come to mind. Fleeing them should at least be considered. (A bonus of that is those states would no longer be getting your tax dollars.)
Some of the zealous may say that we should stand our ground and if we are persecuted or even martyred then so be it. We should certainly stand our ground by being faithful. Both scripture and tradition make clear that one thing you do not do is deny Christ. Nor do we willfully disobey him by giving in to the culture and sanctioning sin.
But both scripture and tradition also teach that martyrdom is not to be sought or courted through recklessness. Remember Jesus instructed his disciples to flee persecution to the next town and preach there. St. Paul fled more than once. We are to take precautions in order to continue spreading the gospel and serving God. During Roman persecutions, the church discouraged those who practically asked to be martyred. And in Apologia, Athanasius wrote that the normal pattern of even the martyrs is:
When persecuted they fled, while concealing themselves they showed fortitude, and when discovered they submitted to martyrdom.
More can be said (And I haven’t addressed the responsibility to protect one’s family.), and Athanasius said more. Again read the Apologia de Fuga. It is very instructive on this subject of taking precautions under persecution.
But do not think that taking precautions at a time such as this is faithless or even cowardly. Taking precautions in order to be able to continue to serve God is what a wise and faithful servant would do.