Throughout the Christian Church’s history, “dangerous” believers have arisen, challenging comfortable definitions of who or what is acceptable to God, who can lead and who needs to keep quiet. Jesus himself was perceived as a threat precisely because he challenged seemingly unchangeable laws about the Sabbath and broke down the boundaries between the pure insiders and the unclean outsiders. It is significant that the followers of Jesus would eventually take as their primary identity marker not the rainbow or the fish, but the cross … a constant reminder that to embrace the way of Christ is to risk following in his footsteps either figuratively or, at times, literally.
It is at least understandable when martyrdom comes at the hands of the secular powers. Early Christians faced lions in the arena because they were seen to be a threat to Roman political stability. Modern-day martyrs like El Salvador’s Oscar Romero or Uganda’s Janani Luwum similarly fell before governments who feared their voices and thereby silenced them. What has at times been more troubling, more insidious, has been when believers have faced the wrath of the very Church they faithfully served and lovingly tried to reform. In some cases, they have been killed, sacrificed for the sake of the allegedly greater good.
But some of these “dangerous” innovators, for reasons of popularity or sheer perseverance, have been impossible to kill. For these individuals, more … creative means have been used to silence them. One technique could be described as “canonize and control.” The idea is actually quite clever: place someone on a pedestal and you render that person irrelevant, at least in terms of being an example for the rest of us. Adoration thereby replaces emulation, reverence supplants replication. It is little wonder that Dorothy Day, that tenacious Christian activist, once asserted, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Francis of Assisi was not as fortunate. Ask just about anyone today about the thirteenth-century saint and they will praise him in glowing terms, but push them further to describe him and they will start talking about his love of birds and animals. Yet this was someone who almost singlehandedly turned the socio-economic structures of his time on their head. To the tens of thousands who followed him, familiar distinctions between rich and poor, high-born and outcast, gave way to a brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ. More than this, Francis dared to cross the all-important inter-religious barrier. At the height of the Crusades, he literally crossed through enemy lines to reach the Muslim sultan and share with him the good news of love and peace in Jesus’ name. The sultan was astounded; many Christians were scandalized! He was such a threat that it was not long before he was removed as head of the very Order he founded. And yet for the vast majority of people today, Francis of Assisi is simply a nature lover, immortalized as a lawn statue, little more than a garden gnome!
In an even more pernicious reputation-changer, Mary of Magdala, first witness of the resurrection, became forever known as a former prostitute. Perhaps the idea of a woman being the “apostle to the apostles” — and what such a precedent might have meant for gender equality in Christian leadership — was too unthinkable for those in power. Whatever the case, otherwise independent tales in the Gospels became conflated, and Mary, whose only pre-crucifixion appearance in the Gospels marks her as one of a group of devoted women of means whose generosity helped underwrite Jesus’ public ministry, is equated with the anonymous harlot who washed the Savior’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She entered the Christian pantheon, but with a tarnished image. More importantly in systemic terms, women like Mary would remain excluded from the Church’s corridors of power for the next 19 centuries.
“Blessed are you,” Jesus said, “when people curse you and revile you on account of me.” They may be called prophets or troublemakers, saints or heretics, but whatever label is thrown their way has far more to say about those who fear them than about those blessed ones who are willing to face their own fears … and stand. There will always be, as the pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, a cost to discipleship. We can all give thanks that there are some “dangerous” believers who still consider it worth the cost to make a difference in the world for the love of God.