On June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, a white supremacist gunned down nine African American Christians as they participated in a Wednesday night Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Americans were outraged at such heartless and vile racism, but something else gained national attention: The church members forgave the murderer. In fact, such forgiveness is so countercultural that many in the media sought to explain it away by saying that the African American church was fearful of reprisals or was ingratiating themselves to the majority white culture. Fortunately, a few reporters accurately identified the “supernatural” source of such forgiveness—the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.
The media missed another crucial, countercultural aspect of the gospel: resurrection hope expressed by endurance. One week after the shooting, believers were back at Wednesday night Bible study, and they have continued ever since. The gospel message of Christ’s loving forgiveness has transformed these believers, and the promise of eternal, resurrection life has given them enduring hope. Forgiveness and endurance shape their values according to God’s kingdom ethics. As Joe Riley, mayor of Charleston, pronounced at the funeral of one church member, “Myra [Thompson] will always be here in the memory of this church. She was a martyr in the continuing fight of human dignity.”
During the season of Lent, Christians around the world focus especially on Jesus’s death on the cross and think about repentance and forgiveness. They recall Paul’s words in Romans that they are co-heirs with Christ, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:17). One of the ways believers share in Christ’s sufferings, Paul continues, is to “hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (hupomonē)” (Rom. 8:25). The term translated “patiently” means “endurance.” This Christian virtue is tightly linked to the promise of the resurrection of the body. Paul declares that we eagerly await the redemption of our bodies, and in the meanwhile, we share in Christ’s suffering.
Since the time of the early church, the gospel message has been challenging cultural norms. While today we stand in awe of the martyrs who embraced endurance in hope of resurrection, the ancient Roman culture they lived in viewed the martyrs’ passive submission to suffering and death as unworthy of free men, and ridiculed their hope of bodily resurrection. The idea that a man would quietly endure torture unto death was beyond comprehension. The promotion of the virtue of endurance by early Christians challenged the reigning definitions of masculine and feminine, even as belief in resurrection of the dead confused and confounded the Roman authorities.
Seneca and the Feminine Virtue of Endurance
In the ancient world, virtues were mapped across a gendered hierarchy, which assigned a masculine label to those traits and qualities that involved freedom of choice, and assigned a feminine label to those traits that were deemed passive. Self-control and courage, public voice and action—these defined the Roman understanding of masculinity. By contrast, women were seen as passive by nature. That made endurance, defined as accepting pain from something or someone outside one’s control, a decidedly feminine virtue. Roman philosophers pointed to childbirth as a ready example of endurance—passive acceptance of pain as forces over which she has little control consume a woman’s body.