This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
“And who knows if you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” These are the words spoken to Queen Esther in the Old Testament, when she is being asked to risk the wrath of her husband the king in order to save the lives of the Israelites.
Esther is asked to endanger her own comfort and security, even her life, for the sake of her people. As the Jewish people were facing annihilation, Esther herself was in no immediate danger in the palace of the king, as long as she remained silent about her heritage. However, she recognized the privileged position she had been given by God, and she used her voice to sway the heart of the king to mercy.
I love the Book of Esther, for it has something of the elements of a fairy tale. A beautiful, kind queen; a powerful, imposing king; dark plots of vengeance and malice, and the ultimate triumph of good and of truth. Esther was raised up from obscurity to become queen, given riches and jewels, was beautiful and beloved by all, but she never lost her meekness, humility and devotion to the Lord. And when it mattered, she was willing to sacrifice everything she had, even her very life, to speak the truth to the king, whether he would hear it or no.
We see a similar scene in the New Testament, as the wife of Pontius Pilate risks the scorn and anger of court officials to plead on behalf of Jesus. She is the only one to speak up in his defense and beg for mercy, even though she herself was still a pagan and not a follower of Christ. But she recognized the truth when she saw it and, like Esther, was unafraid to raise her voice in its defense.
However, it is the witness of the early martyrs of the Church that I find to be the most inspiring, in particular that of St. Perpetua. She and her companion, St. Felicity, were part of a small group of converts who were martyred in the Roman arena in Carthage in 203 A.D. Perpetua was a noblewoman, only 22 years old, with an infant son, when she was arrested for being a Christian. Like Esther and the wife of Pilate, Perpetua was living a life of comfort and privilege, which she had no outward need to sacrifice or risk. Her pagan father pleaded with her to renounce her new beliefs and to save herself, but she refused. Not even for the sake of her young son would she deny the truth of Christ.
The Passion of Perpetua is one of the oldest documents of the early Church, an account written by Perpetua herself while in prison, and easily found online. It’s an incredibly moving witness of the early Christian martyrs, their devotion and their love of Christ.
The account of Perpetua’s trial, where her father and young son are brought in to try and influence her, brings to mind the words of Christ: “If anyone comes to me without hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should actually hate our family members, far from it, but that we must always love God more. We must love Truth more. Because loving and fighting for truth is the only way to order our lives properly and be true disciples of Christ.
In his recently published book “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” Dr. Jordan B. Peterson says, “We are each more responsible for the state of the world than we believe, or would feel comfortable believing. … If you do not object when the transgressions against your conscious are minor, why presume that you won’t willfully participate when the transgressions truly get out of hand?” Peterson is a Canadian professor of psychology, a clinical psychologist and bestselling author. He has done extensive research on the many horrors perpetrated in the 20th century as a result of communism, fascism, etc. As a psychologist, he has focused especially on how such terrible acts could be allowed as well as enacted by ordinary people, and one of his conclusions is that it comes about gradually, in small concessions here and there so as not to “cause trouble.”
Because of our fallen nature, the virtues do not necessarily come easily or naturally to us; they must be practiced with regularity in order to be strengthened. Peterson discusses the importance of regular truth-telling: “A truthful person can rely on his or her innate sense of meaning and truth as a reliable guide to the choices that must be made through life’s days, weeks, and years. … If you deceive (particularly yourself), if you lie, then you begin to warp the mechanisms guiding the instinct that orients you.”
When we look to the examples of the saints, and especially the martyrs or those willing to be martyred, we often find qualities that they carried throughout their lives, a steadfastness of spirit.
It is not an easy thing to speak up to the powers of the world, or even to simply voice our beliefs to our family and friends. It takes conviction, but it also takes trust in our own conscience and our knowledge of truth, and such things must be pursued and practiced constantly in order to achieve them. Queen Esther, the wife of Pilate and St. Perpetua could not have stood up and spoken for the truth if they had not been actively seeking that truth all along. And it wasn’t that any of them sought to go out proselytizing and preaching, but instead they took advantage of the positions that God had placed them in, speaking to the people that God had surrounded them with.
What is truth? That perennial question of Pontius Pilate is one that we should all be asking continually. And when we find that truth, we must not be afraid to speak it.
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