In May 1532, soon after resigning as Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More wrote his epitaph. Reflecting on what he presumably thought lay before him, More wrote of having obtained “the thing which from a child in a manner always he wished and desired, the he might have some years of his life free, in which he little and little withdrawing himself from the business of this life, might continually remember the immortality of the life to come.” For students of history, of course, More’s wishful thinking was not to be. Not even one year later, More was arrested by King Henry VIII for treason and executed in 1535 for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, denouncing papal authority and proclaiming the English crown head of the Church in England. While on the scaffold, he famously proclaimed that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Despite his connection to the Reformation, St. Thomas More has been widely honored as a role model by both Catholics and Protestants in recent years, with St. John Paul II declaring him the patron of statesmen in 2000 after requests by leaders from multiple religious backgrounds. Indeed, with the progressive movement’s wielding of state power and popular culture to punish Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims for defending marriage, sexual ethics, and the right to life, More remains not just a man for all seasons but the role model for our time. Yet, how do we reconcile his martyrdom for Christ in 1535 with the epitaph he wrote for himself just a few years earlier? By 1532, Henry VIII had already purged most of More’s supporters from the clergy and courts, and More was shrewd enough to see the writing on the walls. Within his epitaph, therefore, we see less of a wish and more of a plea. A public plea—carved in stone, no less—indicating his willingness to exit public life and pleading with the king to let him be. Henry, however, demanded acceptance—not just silence—from More, which More as a Catholic could not provide. More did not choose conflict, but he refused to avoid it if it also meant avoiding his call to be a witness to Christ.
Regardless of which side of the Reformation you find yourself standing upon, the parallels between More’s dilemma and our own as Christians in the 21st century are unmistakable. As Hollywood has increasingly produced and promoted films hostile to Christian values, we have turned to our own Christian studios and directors. As our universities have become liberal institutions while maintaining a façade of academic freedom, we have sent our children to Christian universities like Hillsdale, Biola, and Ave Maria. Like More, in response to hostility, we seek to be left alone, but how do we justify this with our Christian calling to be witnesses to Christ?
Fortunately, More’s epitaph was ironically not his last word on the subject. In The Sadness of Christ, his final work written while imprisoned in the Tower of London, More points out the contrast between the energy of Judas with the sleep of the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane. He writes, “Does not this contrast between the traitors and the Apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image . . . a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times to our own?” In response to the Tudor threat, he—facing death—urged the bishops of England, “Do not be afraid.”
If then we seek to stand for Christ in our time as St. Thomas More stood for Christ in his own, we must learn his courage—the courage to remain awake and be a witness for Christ, which invariably requires suffering. Yet as More’s own struggle shows, even for those firm in their religious convictions, the temptation to choose sleep over sacrifice is strong. We read the stories of courageous religious figures like More, Bonhoeffer, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, yet it’s hard to apply their leadership to a world so different from what they face. Yes, individuals like former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich and Elaine Huguenin of Elane Photography in New Mexico have paid prices in their careers for defending marriage, but we live still in a society of religious intolerance that has not (yet) reached the level of religious persecution.
For the average Christian in America today, we still get up each morning, go to work or school, and proceed through life’s activities in ways remarkably similar to non-Christians with some religious activities after work and on the weekends replacing yoga and book club. For the majority of us, life has not yet forced us into the binary choice between Christ and the world, and our religious upbringing reflects this profound reality. Growing up, I participated in numerous youth activities including praise and worship, community service programs, regular Church attendance, and Christian Awakening Retreats. The activities emphasized the importance of Christian community and our reliance on God, two lessons that are important. As I entered adult life, however, I was prepared by my upbringing to be a witness to Christ but not to actively place myself in positions that needed a witness to Christ. I could loudly proclaim that I was pro-life at the March for Life, but in the working world, my faith life was death by a thousand paper cuts. I didn’t want to alienate potential new friends or isolate myself from co-workers by discussing controversial topics where it wasn’t appropriate, but in the end excuses like these eventually isolated my faith life from my working life. Was the only way to truly live a religious life and hold a career to work for an organization that aligned with my views?
The lesson of St. Thomas More says that the answer to this question is a definite no. Many are called by God to the religious life, but the Church is in and of this world as it prepares us for the next, and for that it needs laymen, like More, to be servants of God and also dedicated workers for our businesses, schools, law firms, and city halls. To advance a truly pluralistic society, we have to be witnesses of Christ daily, not to lecture about Christianity (lectures have their own time and place) but to be present as Christians. In every action and interaction, our neighbors, friends, and citizens need to know that we are God’s servants through our dedicated work and charity. As St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” When opponents of those who defend marriage declare us hostes humani generis—enemies of the human race—they need to be reminded that we are their co-workers, roommates, neighbors, family members, and friends. We must not be sleeping; we must be present in the world to remind the world of the beauty of our faith and the legitimacy of our arguments.
Will our witnesses to Christ leave us vulnerable to suffering? Of course it will. As long as humans remain imperfect, any interaction with the world will leave us open to suffering. If we wait until just the right moment to be witnesses to Christ—whether it be after we graduate college, or just until we can get our foot into the door with that first job or big promotion—we will always have an excuse not to be witnesses to Christ. As More wrote in Utopia, “do the best you can to make the present production a success—don’t spoil the entire play just because you happen to think of another one that you’d enjoy rather more . . . for things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect.”
In the end, despite More’s example, only one bishop in England refused to submit to Henry VIII’s demands, More’s friend and fellow martyr St. John Fisher. May we not be caught sleeping when we are called to be witnesses to Christ and His teachings in our own time.