This is a book all about Christian martyrs and it makes pretty grim reading. Basically, it is all about people who were persecuted for their faith and underwent incredible suffering and hardship before dying in some of the most gruesome manners possible. In fact it is an incredibly depressing book and one that as a Christian I found very hard to read. Mind you, it is not something that we of any faith or persuasion should ignore, especially if we live in relative security, because we should always remember those who came before us who suffered and died for the freedom that we enjoy today. As somebody once said, the tree of faith is watered by the blood of martyrs.
However I do find books and articles like this to be a little one sided at times. Look, as I have said and will continue to say, we cannot ignore the plight of those who suffer and die for their faith, especially today, however we cannot be too focused on them since it can distract us from the bigger picture. Also, we can become caught up in the stories that this book tells us and think that the only people who are persecuted are Christians. Before I go on to discuss the implications I better outline some of the background and context of this book.
John Foxe was writing in the 16th century, during the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, which means that he would have lived through the reign of the queen known colloquially as Bloody Mary. England had just gone through a reformation after King Henry VIII had split from the Catholic Church, one reason being for divorce, but more likely a political move to strengthen his sovereignty over England (because up until then the Pope pretty much called the shots). While King Edward moved the reformation forward to free the church from medieval tradition, Queen Mary, being a staunch Catholic, decided that she wanted to return the English church to the rulership of the Pope. She faced tremendous opposition, and in response she went on a rampage and burnt numerous prominent protestants at the stake. I suspect that Foxes' reasons for writing this book was not only to remind the English protestants of those who died under Mary's reign, but also to remind his readers that martyrdom for Christianity was nothing new.
A bulk of the first part of his book is actually, word for word, a copy of Eusebius. Now, the problem that I have with Eusebius, is that he was pretty much a pawn of the Emperor Constantine. He was also a major influence in the council of Niceae. Now, there is an argument, and it is one that I hold too, that Constantine was not actually a Christian, he was the worshipper of the sun god and he only used Christianity for political purposes. I sometimes wonder to what extent Eusebius was one of Constantine's political tools. Now, I do not question the authenticity of the Bible, or God's ability to use people like Eusebius or Constantine to further his own purposes, but I have a suspicion that parts of Eusebius' works, particularly the Ecclesiastical history, are little more than political propoganda. The reason that Constantine, I suspect, chose Christianity to be the state religion, was more a means of uniting and stabilising the empire under his rule than any heartfelt love towards Jesus Christ. As for Eusebius, I note that his book does seem to over-exaggerate the Christian persecution during the Roman Empire.
Mind you, Foxe does go beyond where Eusebius left off and indicates that even though Christianity became the prominent religion, persecutions and martyrdoms still occurred, especially as the Christian empire began to struggle with the rise of the numerous heresies that continued to influence the faith, despite it becoming an accepted religion. Further, it is difficult to determine the authenticity of those who where martyred, because truth be told, if somebody believes in something enough, they will die for it, even though it may not be true. If people didn't, we would not have revolutions.
The problem that I find with books like this is that it makes it seem that Christians are the only people who are persecuted, and the only people who are martyred. I have been in numerous churches where they drum on and on about persecution as Christians to the point that many Christians are scared to associate with non-Christians because they will be persecuted. In modern day Australia, mocked and ridiculed, sure, but not dragged outside, beaten, and then shot. Then again, what about countries where that does happen? Well, guess what, Christians are generally not the only ones targeted. In many of these countries, anybody who does not hold the strict dogmatic faith are dragged outside, beaten, and then shot. Christians are just one of a number of groups that are affected by it. What gets me is that we pray for the Christians and pretty much ignore those who are not Christians, almost suggesting that it is okay for them to be beaten up and shot, but not Christians, because that is horrible. As far as I am concerned anybody who is dragged outside, beaten up, and shot, is horrible, whether they are Christian or not.
Secondly, what about those we persecute. It is very bad for us to be persecuted, but does that mean that we should persecute homosexuals and preach hate sermons against Muslims? Absolutely not. Okay, while I may not agree with homosexual practices, I still love my homosexual friends and will stand up for them, in the same way that I love my Muslim friends and will stand up for them as well. I have been to churches where they preach hate sermons against Muslims and I believe that it is not only appalling, but incredibly offensive. Just because we don't agree with them does not give us the right to target them and hate them. While many Christians claim that homosexuality is an abomination against God, guess what is a real abomination against God? Using his name in vain, and not crying out 'oh my God' when something happens, but making statements of God's behalf, and preaching in his name when he never, and would never, do or say such a thing. That, my friend, is the real abomination against God.