There is rising darkness, chaos and disorder all around us today. This is happening both outside of the Church as well as within. It is possible these trials could escalate and become the worst tribulations humanity has ever seen, but we cannot forget that since the beginning of mankind, there have been good times and bad. But as Christians, we do not fear these times because our hope rests in Jesus Christ who has promised that in the end, good will be victorious over evil.
We know Jesus is our light for this dark world, and though not eliminating our struggles and suffering, He shows us the path to eternal beatitude. With this confidence, we are then to embrace our call to be instruments through which Christ can convert those in the world to Himself. It is especially in these difficult times that we must live our discipleship more faithfully. To do this, it can be helpful to look at a deeper understanding of why we are called “Christians.” Examining this title, we will see that our name reflects our call to be followers of Christ who are active participants in a “conspiracy of goodness.”
Christians: Followers of Christ and Conspirators
In Acts 11:26 we first see the term “Christians” applied to the followers of Jesus Christ. The Latin suffix “ianus” (“iani” for plural) indicates belong to or adhering to someone or something. As an example, followers of Marcian were Marciani and those of Cicero were Ciceroniani. Similarly, even though “Christ” is not Jesus’ proper name, some believe the term “Christians” began to be used for those who adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, scholars also acknowledge there is inadequate historical information to know the exact situation and significance of this title in the Acts of the Apostles.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI suggests another possible origin of this title. In the book The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, in his collected writings on the Church’s Teaching on Christian Morality, he suggests the designation maybe connected with the charge of conspiracy against the Roman Empire. This serious crime was the charge of being a christiani (the Greek term for this accusation). Benedict XVI writes:
For the pagan, the word christianus meant a conspirator, represented in the stereotypes of political propaganda as a person characterized by evil flagitia (crimes) – in particular, by “hatred against the human race” and stuprum (licentiousness).
Reading documents from the early second century from Suetonius (Life of Caesar Nero, XVI and Life of Caesar Claudius, XXV), Pliny the Younger (Letter to Trajan) and Tacitus (Annals, 15.44), the Christians were accused of holding mischievous superstitions, were hated for their “abominations” and were denounced for hating mankind. As such, to the Romans, the followers of Jesus truly were christiani – conspirators against the Roman Empire and the human race. Therefore, Benedict XVI proposes this may be the underlying reason the disciples of Christ were given the title of “Christians.”
Embracing the Name
Benedict XVI does not believe the connection between this criminal act of conspiracy and the name given to them of “Christian” was lost to the early disciples. And rather than renounce this accusation, they embraced this title, appropriating the idea of christiani to themselves and eager to prove themselves worthy of it. In the Letter to the Magnesians, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch writes:
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians but to be so in reality…Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness [or translated as ‘goodness’]. For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be. Therefore, having become His disciples, let us learn to live according to the principles of Christianity. For whosoever is called by any other name besides this, is not of God. Lay aside, therefore, the evil, the old, the sour leaven, and be changed into the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted in Him, lest anyone among you should be corrupted, since by your Savior you shall be convicted (4, 10).
How could they apply the criminal act of conspiracy to themselves? Pope Benedict XVI explains that he believes Bishop Ignatius speaks to this question subtly in the above passage by using a play on words:
In Greek phonetics, the word chrestos (good) was, and is, pronounced christos. Ignatius seizes on this association when he prefaces the words “we must learn how to live in accordance with Christianity [christianismos]” with the admonition “let us not be unfeeling toward his goodness [chrestotes, pronounced christotes]” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians, 10). The conspiracy of the Christos is a conspiracy of those who are chrestos, a conspiracy of goodness…the name Christian implies fellowship with Christ, and hence the readiness to take upon oneself martyrdom in the cause of goodness. Christianity is a conspiracy to promote the good; the theological and moral aspects are fused inseparable, both in the word itself and deeper, in the basic concept of what Christian reality is.
The earliest Christians embraced this reality of who they were – conspirators of goodness. They were always striving to live an authentically Christian life in imitation of Christ Himself, who in His radical love and mercy demonstrated perfect goodness. As Benedict XVI also writes, “they (the Christians) do not merely adopt a theory about Jesus but enter into His way of living and dying and make it their own.” And these Saints who have gone before us, our co-conspirators, are a reminder of the powerful impact we can have in this world if we truly live as “Christians.”
Witnesses in the Early Church
The designation as christiani is evidence the beliefs and practices of the Christians were misconstrued, but they did not see this as an obstacle. They persevered in their God-given mission to be faithful to Christ, even when being courageously countercultural meant facing punishment – even death – for being seen as criminals. Amid a Roman society that held abortion, suicide, gladiatorial games and infanticide as “normal,” these “conspirators of goodness” demonstrated the sacredness and dignity of every human life. They truly loved God above all things and their neighbor as themselves in obedience to Christ.
When towns in the Roman Empire were evacuated due to outbreaks of the plague, the Christians shocked the pagans by staying behind to care for all the sick and dying, not only for their friends but for strangers left behind. Christians were known for adopting unwanted children left on the streets to die. They supported the widows, the slaves, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. They protested moral evils such as abortion, infanticide, slavery, the profanation of the Sacrament of matrimony and other forms of immorality and injustice. They promoted the virtues of humility, patience, perseverance, obedience, courage and selflessness. The early Christians turned the pagan world upside down not by violence or riots but by an outpouring of charity and goodness, which is one reason many historians believe the Christians were so successful in converting the pagan world.
Our Witness Now
Then, like now, the world was growing dark but, as Christians, our call has always been to embrace our vocation to be instruments for Christ in the world amid our joys but especially in our sufferings. And we need to listen to Saints like Bishop Ignatius when he reminds us of our call: “It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians but to be so in reality.” We are called to be faithful disciples of Christ who are truly “conspirators of goodness,” bringing the light of Christ to the darkness of this world through the witness of our lives.