My prior post was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps it was a bit insensitive (or at least poorly timed) given what is surely a terrible tragedy for one Utah family. But I do want to segue into a serious topic that I have long found perplexing: When and to what extent is it appropriate to stand up for one’s beliefs? Specifically, when does publicly counting oneself as a disciple of Christ become so important that it warrants the risk of severe negative consequences, yea, even unto death?
My sense is that dying in the process of fearlessly standing up for one’s religious beliefs is widely considered to be honorable. I’m not well versed in Christian history, but I understand there were many devout martyrs in the early Church that suffered ignominious and painful deaths as a result of their professed Christianity. In contrast, the Apostle Peter denied knowing Christ three times, and even though this was presumably a safer choice for him, modern Christians don’t look upon what he did as virtuous. The Book of Mormon contains accounts of whole families being put to death for their professed beliefs in Christ, and the moral of the story doesn’t seem to be that these Christians had wasted their lives. Finally, let’s not forget Columbine: We’ve all heard the story of the Christian girl who was asked by the teenage shooters whether or not she believed in God. "She said yes," so the story goes, and she may well have been killed for it. Her act was widely viewed as being courageous, noble, and even inspirational to many, many American Christians.
Nevertheless, it is not intuitively obvious to me that if I found myself in a life-threatening situation whose outcome turned on my denying my Christian faith, Christ would necessarily want me to embrace death. It seems to me that continuing to live, to improve myself, to raise a family, to help others and to build the Kingdom would be a better course of action, for a host of unselfish reasons.
The question of how to balance Christian self-identification with self-preservation has arisen for me every now and then over the years, in the form of a hypothetical. For example, at BYU, I took a Colloquium class (John Dehlin was there) in which the question of professing allegiance to Christ in the face of certain death was posed to the students. If I remember correctly, numerous class members expressed strong, unwavering support for the imperative of an unambiguous, public embrace of Christianity, consequences be damned. After a number of strident testimonials and zealous declarations of religious faith, a student put the same question to one of our professors. The professor replied that if his life were on the line and he was being pressured to deny Christ, he would probably do what it took to stay alive, given that he looked forward to spending time with his children and grandchildren. He also voiced the belief that his offspring, in turn, would probably benefit from spending time with him. This made a lot of sense to me (and to others too, I think), but it’s fascinating, in retrospect, that none of the students had previously articulated a justification like this. It’s as if there was an unwritten understanding that to do so would be cowardly.
This issue also once arose for me in the MTC. One fine day, my district was lounging around, and someone posed the following question: "What would you do if you were confronted by a man with a gun in a theatre who asked the Christian members of the audience to self-identify, so that he could shoot them?" As I recall, several members of my district were convinced that a true, committed follower of Christ would fearlessly stand and count himself as a Christian, never mind the ominous consequences to follow. One of my companions, not particularly known for tact, proceeded to ridicule this answer and proclaim that he’d never do such a stupid thing. The ensuing argument became extraordinarily intense, with at least one elder driven to tears, and a couple others that almost came to blows.
My own gut reaction to the MTC hypothetical is this: I’m inclined to think my companion had the better of the argument. Why should I throw my life away, just so I can answer a question "correctly"? What cosmic significance would there be to a public exchange of words between myself and a gun-toting psychopath? Perhaps the signficance isn’t cosmic, except that my own salvation depends on it. But why? Is this what the purpose of a Christian life really boils down to? Could the "test" of my Earth life potentially be to see whether I will profess allegiance to Jesus during some freak incident? Does Jesus really care? Wouldn’t Jesus be better served by my saving my own skin, so I can live another few decades, and maybe spend much of my time doing missionary work or something? I’m sure my wife would rather that I stick around and try to qualify for Celestial bliss via some other, less melodramatic means.
Perhaps there are distinctions that can be drawn between various hypothetical scenarios that entail a risky profession of Christian belief, and maybe Christ would want me to embrace the risk of death for Him in some cases, but not in others. If that’s the case, I invite you all to draw these distinctions for me.