Checking social media or reading news headlines is a quick indoctrination into the politicized climate currently present in our nation. Opinions are varied, polarized and are often heatedly argued in slogans like “Take our Country Back” or “Change We Need.” These slogans hide an array of intent toward public policy, tax changes, foreign policy, healthcare and so on. To say it’s dizzying to enter the political arena–even as a voter–is an understatement.
When gunpowder was introduced to the battlefield, field marshals would ascend a hill on the periphery of the battlefield. Why? Because from this vantage point, they could see above the noise and fog of war in order to best decide how and where their troops should move next. Likewise, let’s reach a new vantage point on the question of how Christians interact with politics by looking back in history to an event that occurred over 1,600 years ago.
The year was between 391-404 C.E. The monk’s name was Telemachus, and because of his devotion to the Lord, he journeyed to Rome to encourage the believers. Fifth century Rome was a politically unstable place due to foreign invasions. Gladiator games were still fiercely popular, and devotion to Caesar was publicly expected even though Emperor Theodosius I had made Christianity the state religion several years prior.
Telemachus heard the raucous of the gladiator games and rushed into the stadium. Impassioned, he begged the fighters to abstain from killing each other and to put an end to the worship of idols. At this point in the story, there are differing accounts stating he was speared by a gladiator, or the crowd stoned him. Either way, Telemachus’ death that day made Roman headlines. The last recorded gladiator games took place in 404 C.E. by decree of Emperor Honorius because of Telemachus’ stand.
What does this story have to do with Christians interacting with politics today in the U.S.? Consider Telemachus’ story: He lived in an empire where Christianity was allowed but wasn’t popular in many areas of society. By the fifth century, Christians existed throughout the empire and were socially, politically and religiously active because the law had recently given them opportunity to be.
However, when Telemachus traveled to Rome and heard about the gladiator games, he didn’t organize a nonprofit and he didn’t run for office to try to eradicate the games. Instead, he jumped into the arena and called out what was wrong. It was only after he took a stand–and paid a very high price for it–that public policy followed suit.
Above all, Telemachus was devoted to God. That’s where we who are Christians need to start. This doesn’t tell us which box to check on the ballot box, nor which local cause to endorse–nor does it tell us if we should be Republican, Democrat or Independent. But what it does tell us is that we need to trust the Lord with our whole heart, and He will direct us. Live wisely. We will lose direction when we believe that the answer to social ills rests in public policy.
Gayle Sollfrank is an adjunct professor of history at PLNU.