Reading the signs of the times in our present historical age probably causes us to conclude that we are in a period of cultural decadence. In response to this disheartening trend, many of us hope to find great witnesses who help us find courage to overcome this cultural malaise. We find just such a witness in the history of the Roman empire, nineteen centuries ago. St. Justin Martyr stood as a sign of contradiction against the decadent culture of his era, and he can help us stand as signs of contradiction in our own age. We will do well to listen to his words and follow his example.
In reading about St. Justin’s life, we immediately learn that he was a seeker. By constantly searching for deeper knowledge and asking questions, he found his way to Christianity through Stoicism, Peripatetism, Pythagoreanism, and Platonism.
An encounter with an old Christian man along the seashore was Justin’s final step into this new religion. In Christianity, he said he found the philosophy that satisfied his soul. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin wrote: “straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and … I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable” (chapter 8). He would spend the rest of his life searching for truth, goodness, and beauty, and working to share it with others.
Justin’s love for philosophy turned him into an itinerant teacher, and he found his way to Rome. When he arrived there, Justin’s passion for philosophy and reason led him to call for a reasoned hearing for Christianity within the culture of pagan Rome. To the emperor, Antoninus Pius, he made a serious charge: “you do not examine the charges made against us; but, yielding to unreasoning passion, and to the instigation of evil demons, you punish us without consideration or judgment.” Rather, he proclaimed, “Justice requires that you inquire into the life both of him who confesses and of him who denies, that by his deeds it may be apparent what kind of man each is” (First Apology, §4-5). Justin’s claim was that a man should be respected for the value he brings to the society around him, whether he be pagan or Christian.
With this in mind, Justin argued for the social value of Christians and Christianity. He made the point that Christian morality stood as a sign of contradiction against the broader Roman culture of selfishness and disdain. Justin taught rather forcefully on a number of moral topics, which certainly made him an enemy to some. His staunch defense of the truth and value of Christian morality is ultimately what earned him the title “Martyr,” as he was scourged and beheaded for refusing to worship the Roman pantheon.
One of Justin’s primary points about the social value of Christianity was that followers of Jesus eschewed the accumulation of wealth. Instead of living from the vice of greed, they “directed all excess wealth to the common good” (First Apology, §14). That is, they spent any money they did not need for life’s necessities in caring for the poor. This was certainly contrary to the accepted cultural norm, where the poor were often left for dead.
Engraving of St. Justin Martyr, 1584.
On top of caring for the poor, Christians also chose to live together with people of other ethnicities. Thus, they created a social melting pot and showed that the truth of the Gospel was truly for anyone and everyone who would receive it. Beyond that, Christians made a practice of “praying for their enemies,” those who would persecute them for their beliefs (First Apology, §14). Justin was making the bold point that Christians’ profound desire was to live in harmony with everyone, building the New Jerusalem in their historical era.
Perhaps the most countercultural virtue championed by St. Justin was chastity. “We who formerly delighted in fornication,” he wrote, “now cleave only to chastity” (First Apology, §14). Rampant sexual license, of course, was an ingrained part of Roman society and culture. It was radical for Justin and Christians to suggest any alternative way of life. Yet, he was trying to show that the way of Christian virtue was, in fact, better for Roman society because chastity would prevent the use, abuse, and exploitation of all persons.
Finally, Justin exhorted all, Christians and unbelievers alike, to a deeper knowledge and love of God the Father and His Incarnate Son. He called his listeners and readers to “consecrate themselves to God alone”; and to grow in relationship with Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, “since also He became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing” (Second Apology). This was to be the Christian response to the “magic arts” that were so popular in ancient Rome.
We see the same trends in our modern world that prevailed in Justin’s age. In our current culture, Christians are looked upon with skepticism, and even blamed for cultural ills, just because we are people of faith. Christians must try to defend the social, economic, and cultural value of our lifestyle to a world of unbelievers who might mock us for prudery and superstition. Many of us attempt, with much difficulty, to live chastely within a hedonistic, pornographic culture.
Although he lived nineteen centuries ago, we can rely on Justin’s heroic example as a sign of contradiction for modern times. We can look to him for inspiration in our philosophical search for truth, goodness, and beauty. We can find motivation in his words about caring for the poor and living in social harmony with many races and ethnicities. We can follow his example of chastity. Any and all of these trends will provide more satisfaction and social benefits than anything that the world offers as glamorous. Our modern world needs to know just that, and St. Justin can help us share that message.
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