In continuing our series on the Apostolic Fathers, this week’s post examines a small text known as the Epistle to Diognetus. This text is more of a tract than an epistle, with a general tone of defending and promoting Christianity that was written sometime between 150-225 AD (Holmes, 686-689). The section of the text that I wanted to focus on today comes from chapter five of Diognetus:
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom… But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.” (5.1-5.5)
This text should not surprise Christians who read it, especially based on its date and tone. Much of the rest of chapter five talks about Christians facing persecution, not exposing their children (unlike the rest of Roman society), and “not sharing their wives” (5.7). The period between 150-225 AD was marked by persecutions and also characterized as the period of the Christian apologists. Justin Martyr was one of the more famous apologists, who wrote in defense of Christianity. Like Justin, Diognetus seeks to show how Christians’ true citizenship and allegiance is not of this world, but a part of the heavenly kingdom. Such a theme will be later picked up and popularized by Augustine in his City of God, which draws a separation between the earthly city and the heavenly city. Suffice it to say, the idea that Christians’ “do not belong to this world” (John 15.19) is a theme that runs throughout Christian history. In fact such a phrase is repeated often today in Churches in the USA.
If that is true, then why do people also try to claim that the USA is a “Christian nation” and that it was “founded on Christian principles?” I would contend that people who argue such things should check their American history, since this country was founded on religious freedom and freedom from harsh taxation. Religious freedom means exactly that, not simply “freedom to be whichever type of Christian you choose.”
As we get closer and closer to the next presidential election in 2016, we will be having debates and primaries and other political speeches being made. The upcoming general election has so many republican candidates that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Without getting into political discussions about which candidate you do or do not support, there is usually a candidate or two that claims that they want to get this country back in line with it’s founding Christian principles (usually to gain the support of very conservative groups and a majority of the Religious Right). This is not to say that all who identify as the Religious Right want the USA to get back to being a Christian nation, but there are many within it who do.
I would contend that such groups fail to understand texts like Diognetus which are a part of Christian history. Christian thinkers throughout history have underscored the truth that Christians have to navigate life on earth as foreigners whose true citizenship is in heaven. Jesus himself in John 15 (noted above) emphasizes that the disciples are not of this world. Why do people want to continually view the USA as a special exception to this idea? Why do people think that the USA is God’s new promised land?
There are many different types of people who make up the USA, including many different religious groups. To “get this country back to being a Christian nation” would ostracize a great many of those who call this country home. In my opinion, Christians should worry less about lining up the political machine with their specific Church’s policies and doctrines (since even if this were a “Christian nation,” whose Christianity would rule it?), and more about how to help the people in the USA. Making this country a safer, better, and more enjoyable place for all is a great political goal. Just don’t try to make it the Christian capital of the world. After all, Diognetus tells us that there are many nations around the world that have Christians in them. We can’t forget about their place in this world either.