Teaching Can Change Lives — And Threaten Empires | Sojourners

Teaching Can Change Lives — And Threaten Empires

Image via Lawrence OP / flickr.com

Editor's Note: St. Justin Martyr's feast day is celebrated on June 1.

Would St. Justin Martyr recognize us as Christians? After reading his, “Discourse to the Greeks,” I have my reservations.

I doubt he would recognize me.

Addressing a class full of seniors in an urban public high school, I quote Aldous Huxley: “It is better that one should suffer than that many be corrupted.” Then I ask them where he is borrowing from. I, the instructor, am uncertain whether to bring up religious references, nonbelievers are uncertain about the allusion’s origins in John 11, and believers are insecure about mentioning their faith. A veil of silence sits over the room as we wallow in our discomfort.

This is not the image of courage and clarity that St. Justin Martyr presents.

The second century saint’s common rejoinder seems to be, “Look at what you worship. Look who you honor.” He then observes that his listeners’ chaotic existences are a natural byproduct of their misappropriated honorifics.

“With such a mass of evils do you banish shame; and you fill your minds with them, and are carried away by intemperance, and indulge as a common practice in wicked and insane fornication.” Was this really written almost two millennia ago?

His words could describe us today, a culture steeped in lust, which Justin Martyr says is the door “through which every ill is begotten — hatreds, strife, envy, emulations, anger, and such like.” Our whole system encourages us in that direction: Sexual lust, lust for power, lust for wealth. Is it any wonder that our own culture resembles not so much the gospel as a Greek Bacchanal?

I wonder in what way Justin Martyr would recognize the Christian life played out in mine. Like him, I was educated at institutions that provided no theological or metaphysical foundations for life. Studies were always geared toward the “how,” rarely the “why.” I became proficient at it, but I was unsatisfied. At home we read Scripture and memorized verses. At church we talked about the gospels and the Old Testament prophets, but at school we never engaged those texts.

Instead, my spiritual instructors in education were Sartre and Camus. Existentialism, the metaphysical practice of the materially comfortable, became the defining ethic of the academy. Sure, one could find solace in one’s work or pretend that what one knew to be true was not. Perhaps one could maintain private religious practice or a personal faith. But such things could not be brought to bear in my educational context.

About a century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, before Justin was a saint, a martyr, or even a Christian, he visited a series of philosophers and teachers, from Stoics to Pythagoreans to Platonists in search of the truth, only to find an aged Syrian Christian who opened his life up to the truth of the gospel. He then dressed as a philosopher and founded a school in Rome, the center of Hellenistic hedonism, instructing students on a unifying theology that equally embraced Plato and Aristotle along with Jesus Christ and the Torah. After an open debate with a cynic philosopher, he was reported to the authorities and condemned to death with six of his students.

I returned to faith in a green 1996 Honda Accord while traveling across the country. My brother accompanied me, and though he was not a Syrian Christian (how apropos given our current circumstance), his fledging involvement with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship intrigued me. He seemed so sure of the truth that was Jesus. My brother’s life had mission, which gave him fulfillment and purpose. In contrast, I was a hollow man, empty of all but the knowledge that the pursuits of men were meaningless — even absurd — in the face of a brutal, uncaring universe. Seeing him overflowing with such inner substance sparked a dormant faith which has unified my learning and my belief.

What better way to share that unity than through teaching? I want to expose my students to the continuing conversation from ancient Sumer through modern America, from paganism to Christianity, from the objective good through the subjective turn, to give them the fullness of thought and mission that was missing from my education. It’s a daunting task, given our historical illiteracy and the delicacy of the subject matter, but it is the one God has placed before me. I dare not bury it in the ground.

At St. Justin Martyr’s trial, Junius Rusticus, the presiding judge declared, “Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws.” And on some level, I hope my curriculum would be equally disturbing to those comfortably in power. And on some level, this terrifies me.