Wednesday was the feast of St. Stephen, a man who could arguably be considered the patron saint of rhetoric, an activity which ultimately gave him a title of greater reverence: the first martyr. In today’s society, his life is particularly relevant.
We only know about St. Stephen through two chapters in the Book of Acts. In Chapter 6, to address a controversy involving distribution of food aid, the apostles established the first deacons, men who would deal with the nuts and bolts of the ministry. The body of disciples nominated Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5, J.B. Phillips),” along with six others, and the apostles gave their blessing. As a consequence, Stephen is a patron of deacons today.
But it was not his role as a practitioner of charitable logistics that cemented Stephen’s place in Christian lore. His role as a deacon also took him into the Greek-speaking synagogues, where he preached about Jesus Christ. Not all the congregants were happy to have him:
“Members of a Jewish synagogue known as the Libertines, together with some from the synagogues of Cyrene and Alexandria, as well as some men from Cilicia and Asia, tried debating with Stephen, but found themselves quite unable to stand up against either his practical wisdom or the spiritual force with which he spoke. In desperation they bribed men to allege, ‘We have heard this man making blasphemous statements against Moses and against God.’ At the same time they worked upon the feelings of the people, the elders and the scribes.” – Acts 6:9-12
To turn an old adage, if you can’t beat ’em, destroy ’em. Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin, accused of blasphemy. Given the chance to defend himself, the Spirit brought out in Stephen a monologue that established his innocence, the validity of his teachings and even an admonishment of the Sanhedrin done with a logical progression that would have made Aristotle smile.
Just like the windbags of today, the men of the Sanhedrin did not like to be shown up, especially by somebody from some sect that followed the teachings of a carpenter from Galilee.
“Yelling with fury, as one man they made a rush at him and hustled him out of the city and stoned him.” – Acts 7:57
In 21st Century America, many people learn about the world from pundits and holy rollers who play on their fears much as Libertines did. And though the inspired Stephens of today are not stoned, they are drowned out by all the noise, which makes it hard for well-meaning people to believe anything they hear. Stephen’s life is close to my heart, because it was debate that brought me back to Christianity after a few years in the secular doldrums. My propensity to argue with people on Facebook became such a cross to bear that it made me realize how far I had become separated from God. Though my motives were noble, usually focused on social justice issues, my methods were not. It was emotion and ego that ruled the day, both the fury of the argument and the sulking resentment of the fallout. Nobody was convinced of anything except that the other person was a jerk. And I was anything but at peace.
As with all trials, my argumentative nature has taught me a few things, and my inner St. Stephen struggles to apply to my life:
It’s about promoting right, not being right: Why do you debate? For justice? For prestige? To promote Jesus’ teachings? To show off your knowledge? Contemplative prayer and experience have shown me that my most frustrating experiences in debate were those in which my ego took over. Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin to demonstrate the certitude of Christ’s teachings, not for bragging rights.
Consider your audience: You might have the most insightful, thought-provoking, research-based, spiritual soliloquy on gun violence, and you feel as though you can change the world with this revelation. But if your masterpiece of social justice is an email to your NRA card-carrying cousin who enjoys target shooting with his AK-47, you are going to be quite disappointed with the results. Instead, when inspiration strikes, write it down somewhere and save it for when it is useful.
Beware the false Stephens (you might be one of them): In Christian teaching, you often hear the word discernment. It’s not enough to follow a teaching because it sounds good or gets your emotions going. If a teaching does pass the soul smell test after sincere contemplative prayer, I question it. My soul rejoices when I think about a lesbian couple, two good friends of mine, who will realize a dream that they have had for years by getting married, though I know the institutional Church is spending money to try to stop them from doing it. My soul questions the teachings of televangelists who get rich on the platform of “prosperity theology.” My soul is suspicious of religious leaders who speak more of condemning Satan than praising God.
But always consult the Holy Spirit. You might realize that what you once thought was a bedrock of your belief system is really just a product of your own prejudices. (That is how my evolution on gay marriage took place.) One of the witnesses of Stephen’s stoning was a man from Tarsus named Saul, who led some of the persecutions that followed. We now know of that man by the Latinized version of his name, Paul. After a mystical conversion experience in Acts 9, Paul became the great missionary who spread Christianity around the Roman Empire.
Lead yourself not into temptation: Most of the people with whom I got into arguments on Facebook were not really friends, and some of them were people whom I had never met in person. While I strive to speak with kindness to all of God’s wayward children, patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that I often forget to pick. I think it’s better that I avoid people whom I allow to bring out the first in me. That being said…
Bring St. Francis into the discussion: The Prayer of St. Francis is not just a spiritual masterpiece, it makes for a great checklist. I have a sheet of paper with the prayer taped to the desk where I work, so I can always see how I’m doing. Where there is hatred, am I sowing love? Where there is darkness, am I sowing light? Do I seek to understand as much as I seek to be understood?
Don’t let being right get in the way of your important relationships: On Christmas Eve of all days, I got into the first argument with my grandfather … ever. What started as a spirited, then heated debate about the legality of gay marriage took an ugly turn. He asked me if I was a Boy Scout. My wife, who was watching, knew exactly where he was going with it, and tried to stop the discussion. I tried turning the argument against the Boy Scouts, an organization I never was a big fan of. But Grandpa persisted, and asked me how I would feel if my son was on a camping trip with a gay scout leader. I lost it, shouted “You’re a bigot!” and stormed out of the room, my wife in tears.
Thankfully, my grandparents were at the vigil mass that night, so I was able to apologize, allowing Christmas peace to return for the most part. But what did taking a stand on a moral issue in this setting gain me? Not only was it a step backwards in my spiritual development, but it led me to see a side of my grandfather that I had never seen before. A man whom I had always seen as a happy, pious, charitable, loving, genuine human being to all people and a role model to me suddenly became…imperfect. Winning an argument about gay marriage was not worth the price that I paid in my relationship with the man who sponsored me for my confirmation, drove me home from track meets and responded to my apology by saying, “I love you.”
today we celebrate the entrance of St. Stephen into eternal glory.
He died praying for those who killed him.
Help us to imitate his goodness
and to love our enemies.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” – Vatican II Weekday Missal
Postscript: I found out two days after I wrote this that pastor Bryan Halferty published a similar post at The Unitive. He makes good points, especially one that could have been aimed at me:
“Building trust is more important than winning an argument. If you hurt a relationship but win an argument you lost. God is about relationships, focus on maintaining the trust.”