The reading is from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headline is mmeant to keep my thinking real:
Acts 6:8-10,7:54-59 ©
Stephen was filled with grace and power and began to work miracles and great signs among the people. But then certain people came forward to debate with Stephen, some from Cyrene and Alexandria who were members of the synagogue called the Synagogue of Freedmen, and others from Cilicia and Asia. They found they could not get the better of him because of his wisdom, and because it was the Spirit that prompted what he said. They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him.
But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘I can see heaven thrown open’ he said ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this all the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they all rushed at him, sent him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul. As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
Well, it’s the Feast of Stephen, which takes us right out of shepherds and angels into the world where people are killed for their faith. Stephanos was the chief of the “servants” (deacons) appointed in the Jerusalem Assembly to relieve the missionaries (apostles) from the everyday tasks of caring. The large chunk of material missed out by the lectionary is the account of his arrest and trial by the Jewish Sanhedrin to which he delivered a very boring and denunciatory sermon. I’m not suggesting that this excuses his murder, but then, I’m a preacher.
This story is from the Acts of the Apostles which is the second volume of Luke’s history of the Jesus movement. Although he thinks of himself as a historian and can take his place with other ancient history writers, his narrative is not a factual account. Like other ancient historians, he gives an account that supports its author’s convictions; in this case Luke’s enthusiasm for the peaceful spread of Christian Assemblies form Jerusalem to Rome.
We cannot rely therefore on the historicity of Luke’s story of Stephanos but we can undestand its concerns. Although the Romans on the whole practised toleration of religion across their Empire, many other cultures remained utterly opposed to anything or anyone of different faith. The Jewish people were notoriously intolerant. Luke presents the trial of Stephanos as an instance of Jewish intolerance which mirrors their intolerant rejection of Jesus and prefigures other later persecutions of believers, many of them by the state.
Luke presents Stephanos as an ideal witness (martyr) to Jesus but few who have read the full story will have found him attractive. In spite of his vulnerability there is an element of triumphalism in his witness – “just wait, you’ll get yours one day” – which detracts from his courage. But these are trivial objections. The point is not what sort of man he is but the fact that he is persecuted for his faith and killed by a bunch of religious thugs which includes Saul the Pharisee, later known as Paul. As Luke tells it, he is stoned for blasphemy, the same catch-all accusation used by present day Islamic thugs in Pakistan to condemn members of minority faiths, such as Christianity, which of course has used the same charge in many places throughout its history for the same purpose.
Richard Dawkins has accused religions of aiding murder and war by their claim to an exclusive truth not based on evidence. It seems to me that human beings as such have been good at finding spurious reasons to excuse killing, but I agreee that faith in a source of ultimate truth, which has not, like Christian faith, been cleansed of arrogance by having at its heart a man murdered by religious bigots, will always be dangerous. And the sad history of official Christainity’s betrayal of its murdered founder, shows that Dawkins may have some evidence for his accusation. Mind you, atheism doesn’t have a great record either.
All in all St Stephen’s day may be a good occasion for the Christian church to repent of its arrogant persecution of heretics and adherents of other religions, while remembering the vulnerable courage of its own martyrs and those who have died defending different convictions..