At the end of the First Century AD, as the Emperor Trajan continued the persecution of Christianity, the Roman magistrate Pliny wrote to him for advice regarding that persecution. Pliny wrote that it had been his practice to interrogate those who were denounced to him as Christians:
“I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” (1)
What is interesting about Pliny and Trajan’s exchange is not only that they wanted Christianity persecuted—they were hardly unusual in that—but one of the reasons that Pliny gave. For Pliny, Christians ought be persecuted because “whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy... deserve to be punished.”
Pliny objected to Christianity not only for its beliefs, but for the mere fact that its adherents dared to hold those beliefs when commanded by the state to believe otherwise. For him, the beliefs themselves hardly mattered—“whatever the nature of their creed”—but what did matter was the stubbornness with which the early Christians held them. What mattered was that the early Christians rejected the State’s claim that it would tell them what they were free to believe. What mattered was that they rejected the State’s claim to authority over the human conscience.
As far as Pliny was concerned, Christianity almost might as well have declared the world round when Rome professed it square, or else preferred rose granite to Rome’s marble. The point was not only the beliefs themselves, but that early Christians held those beliefs when Rome commanded them to think otherwise. The agnostic Robert Bolt almost grasped this when he had his hero, Thomas More, on being asked why he held to his beliefs in defiance of Royal authority reply, “because what matters is that I believe it, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.” As almost 1500 years earlier, King Henry VIII would claim authority over More’s conscience and More would accede no more than would the Christians condemned by Pliny, Trajan, and Rome.
Why could Rome not tolerate the beliefs of what were then a small minority? Because Rome would suffer no rival, not even the few followers of a Nazarene carpenter. When those followers proclaimed that man, executed by Rome, risen, Rome saw a threat to its power. When they called Him the Son of God, which Caesar said he was, Rome saw a threat. And when they called the risen carpenter Lord, which Caesar said that he alone was, Rome saw a threat to its power.
If Christianity is true, then the state may last a thousand years, as Rome did, but man will live forever. Man, therefore, will always take precedence over the state. If Christianity is true, then there exists something higher and holier than the state to which a man owes his obedience, his devotion, and his conscience. That was why the Early Christians would not burn incense to Caesar as a god, they bowed to a higher one.
This was the threat the a powerful state could not bear, either two thousand years ago or today, whether that state is Rome, Tudor England, Soviet Russia, or Modern America, which has recently claimed authority over the human conscience (2). A powerful state can suffer no rival, but it can make its rivals suffer. Yet, the reason for which the state would not tolerate the early Christians, and may soon not tolerate modern ones, is precisely the same one for which the Christians continued and will continue to defy the State’s claim to authority over their consciences. They hold to a higher and holier God than Caesar, or as St. Peter put it when he defied the power of the ruling classes, “it is better to obey God than man.”