Thoughts on Gnostics, martyrdom, etc

So, a friend of mine loaned me a book called The Gnostic Gospels. The gnostic gospels are a set of writings about Jesus and early Christianity, but they were not placed in the canon of the new testament. For one reason or another it was decided they did not jive with Christian belief and should not be considered true gospels. This type of writing is called gnostic from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge, because many of them deal with obtaining inner knowledge or enlightenment.

One of the chapters in this book deals with the death of Jesus and what it signified for early Christians who themselves suffered torture and death. Back in the day, you could be executed for admitting you were a Christian. Mostly this was about worshipping the wrong God, but also about rumors that Christians drank human blood, did magic, and committed sexual atrocities- same as the other weirdo fringe groups. Well anyway, it was pretty darn dangerous to be a Christian and talk about it. The early version of the church we know today, put forth writings to encourage Christians. They said being killed for confessing Christ was actually a good thing because it was a way of becoming pure and attaining God. It mirrored the very death of Jesus. Gnostics felt a bit differently. They saw Jesus’ death as split between the suffering of his body and the triumph of his spirit. Gnostic writing talks about confessing Christ through one’s actions. Confession aloud is of lesser importance because it is only words and therefore shallow.

So Christians had the issue of persecution and torture, and they were split into disagreeing factions on how best to address this. Gnostics never came right out and said to lie. But they did seem to favor an approach that let them keep quiet and avoid death when possible. The predecessor group to the modern church said that being martyred was good, even glorious and led the way to God. And martyrdom was becoming a way to gain more believers to the church, as many wondered what these Christians had that let them face death willingly.

It kinda struck me that this disagreement is a bit like some of the early ideas surrounding the civil rights movement and work towards black equality/advancement. There was a school of thought following Booker T Washington, advocating that blacks show through actions that they are intelligent and model citizens. Confrontation was to be avoided when possible. On the other hand, W E B Dubois led a more direct approach which involved being vocal- the type of thing likely to incite violence.

The reasons for Christians to speak out and incur violence were different than the aims of the civil rights movement though. The Gnostic Gospels points out that Christians were not after recognition to drive acceptance. They were after a closeness to God which probably did drive both recognition and eventual acceptance of Christians.

All of this makes me wonder about my own world. I have no point of reference for expecting violence or death for being myself. If I was in a different time or place and had a reason to fear torture, what would I do? Would it be more important to keep quiet and live, passing on my ideas as secrets? Or should I speak out who I am and take the consequences? I don’t think I will ever have to decide. But I do wonder.

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