55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.Acts 7:55–60
Stephen is known as the Protomartyr, or “first martyr,” of the Christian church. Through his death, and the narrative told about the meaning and purpose of his death, Stephen establishes the framework for all future Christian martyrs by bracketing off the proper behavior of a martyr, even down to the emotions a martyr should feel: a willingness, even marked with a sense of joy, to give one’s life for their faith in Christ, coupled with an overwhelming sense of compassion and forgiveness for those causing their suffering and their death. Stephen also demonstrates what results from living as Jesus lived: you anger the authorities so completely that they seek to silence you, potentially permanently.
This is a powerful message, and a dangerous one.
As this passage from Acts 7:55–60 describes, Stephen was the first person who was killed due to his proclamation of his faith that Yeshua bar-Joseph was someone not simply human, but also divine. It’s an impressive scene: he’s standing in front of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of priests and scribes in Jerusalem, no less! At the beginning of the passage (verse 55), Stephen has just wrapped-up what has already been a long speech, where he systematically worked through Jewish history—his own history as well, I might add, since Stephen was, like all of Jesus’s followers at this very early date, Jewish himself—demonstrating how he perceives his people have consistently failed to follow God’s call.
At this point, Stephen looks up and sees God and Jesus, side by side, in heaven. He could have kept this amazing fact to himself, and if he had any sense of self-preservation, he probably should have. He knows that he’s already angered the most powerful men in Judaism with his impressively long and detailed speech—when someone is grinding their teeth at you, looking enraged, you can be pretty certain that they’re not exactly pleased with you—but Stephen doesn’t hold back. Instead, he goes straight ahead and tells the entire Sanhedrin in verse 56 to look up as well, and to see the “Son of Man” standing exactly where Stephen sees him. I envision Stephen doing the equivalent of a mic drop at this moment.
Of course, this is quite possibly the most blasphemous and offensive thing Stephen could have said in front of the Sanhedrin, as the Shema states quite clearly that the Lord God is One. Stephen is very well aware of this fact, and seems be daring the people—who are, again, literally gnashing their teeth in fury—to kill him. He is powerless, completely vulnerable to the actions of the authorities here. He knows this, and he dares them anyway. Of course, they oblige. They drag him outside and start to stone him.
Stephen does not blame his murderers for their actions, nor does he ask Jesus to intercede on his behalf to save his life. Instead, as verses 59–60 demonstrate, he simply asks for Jesus to take his spirit when he dies. He’s accepted that he’s going to die, and, it could be argued, seems to accept his death without complaint. Stephen then kneels (presumably he’d been standing this whole time while he was pelted with stones), and uses his literal last breath to beg God to forgive his murderers. His act has significant consequences: the Saul who is present at the stoning (and notably approves of it) becomes the Paul whose evangelical fervor still resonates today.
The narrative demonstrates God’s approval of Stephen’s actions in two ways: one, God shows up and says hello in verse 56; and two, Stephen is shown paralleling Jesus at key points during his death. Yes, these parallels reflect the fact that both the Gospel of Luke and Acts share the same writing community. Yet, it goes deeper than that: both Jesus and Stephen speak in front of the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:67–71), they both are brought outside of a city to be stoned (Luke 4:28–29), they both pray for their attackers (Luke 23:34), and they both offer up their spirits to God (Luke 23:46). Stephen is not simply dying for Jesus, he’s dying as Jesus. He’s enacting the ritual of Jesus’s death through his own, and thus demonstrates what Luke/Acts considers the most complete Christian witness: to live as Jesus did so completely that you die as Jesus died.
Now, returning to my claim that this is a dangerous message. If this is how God desires that we act—to embody Jesus’s life in the most complete way possible—then shouldn’t we just simply strive to do exactly that, no questions asked? How can it be dangerous to follow God’s desire for our lives? It should actually be dangerous not to.
Thing is, I think that we focus on the heroic aspects of the story—the lone individual standing for what he thinks is right, no matter the cost, and literally receiving God’s blessing for his bravery!—and look past the collateral damage of Stephen’s act. The question isn’t whether Stephen wasn’t enacting God’s will, because verse 56 clearly demonstrates that God was down with preaching the Gospel in that moment. The question is actually whether God wills martyrdom in every instance, or whether God would rather we live instead, doing more good over a longer life span.
We love heroism. I might even argue that we’re addicted to it. We love stories of individual people facing insurmountable odds, making huge sacrifices for something greater than themselves, whether that be an abstract ideal or the highly concrete survival of others. We hold the greatest honor for those who make what we term “the greatest sacrifice:” we don’t view these people as “losing” their life, as if it was just taken from them without meaning, but as having “given” their life, where they have willingly handed over their existence in service to a greater good. We see some life sacrifices as having more meaning than others, as if the manner of one’s death imparts the value of a life, and not the entire sweep of a life lived in service to the greater good.
This sacrificial narrative is at the foundation of many of the myths we hold most dear, and which play out in both our most sacred rituals as well as our most banal entertainments. Think of the climax of every one of the seemingly innumerable Marvel movies: either one, or a group, of singularly gifted individuals demonstrates one very specific form of heroism: the willingness to face down the very real threat of physical harm, or even death, in order to save New York/Earth/Asgard/the Universe.
These individuals show their absolute commitment to this physical heroism, and on a few occasions (shedding a tear for you, Black Widow) actually move their heroism from the threat of physical harm to the reality of physical death. These movies don’t sell simply because they have amazing effects and escapism (although that does help); they sell because they allow us to follow the excitement of the hero’s journey, including their time of trial with the embodiment of evil, and don’t ever remind us that in real life, evil can’t be defeated with a well-timed punch.
Yet, we keep failing to learn the lesson which Marvel itself has actually, to its credit, tried to teach us: this form of heroism comes with a cost, one rarely actually paid by the individual hero. Instead, the ripples of these individualist acts unsettle entire communities, and disrupt the balance of lives far away from the lone individual. I’d argue that Stephen was not actually heroic. Instead, he was obedient to the will of God. There is a rather significant difference between these two constructs.
These three questions, which emerge from Acts 7:55–60, are instructive in showing the differences between the two: 1) who holds the power? 2) is God actually calling the shots, or are you? 3) what’s the collateral damage?
Who holds the power when people use lethal force? If both parties hold weapons, and are seeking to impose their will through the use of their power over the other, then that might possibly be heroic, but it might also not be the will of a God who willingly died in the face of overwhelming state violence. If only one party holds weapons, then that is neither heroic nor is it the will of God. Police shootings of unarmed people of color is simply state violence wearing a mask of “legality.”
Is God calling the shots (so to speak) when entire communities are decimated in the name of “advancing democracy?” Or, are you equating your own interpretation of “good” with God’s, and invoking God’s name to grant your cause legitimacy? We have seen physical heroism in great measure from every single military that ever existed, yet I can say with certainty that God has never willed the massive death and destruction that has accompanied every single “righteous cause” throughout history.
Finally, what is the collateral damage when we apply this narrative of sacrificial physical heroism to the people who are on the front lines of this current crisis? This is possibly the most important question to ask, because it is through the lens of collateral damage that we see the true danger of our tendency to conflate heroism with martyrdom, sacrifice, and death. We need to critically examine what we mean when we call someone a “hero.”
We call medical workers heroes because they are risking their own lives to save others. When we witness scenes of nurses and doctors valiantly working to save a person’s life, we see physical heroism in action, and it makes sense to us: they are “fighting evil” with their singular skill and dedication. Yet, can a virus be called “evil,” when it lacks intent? Viruses don’t desire destruction; viruses simply exist.
Also, are medical workers inherently heroic? As in, are they heroic because nursing is always and forever heroic? Or is medicine just as much a job as any other, and we’re only calling it heroic because we don’t want to see the structural inequities, and policy failures, which oftentimes require medicine to focus more on “heroic” interventions than on the daily business of maintaining a healthy population? Do we ignore the kinds of policies which could keep medical professionals from the constant stress of fighting to save lives because we are blinded by the excitement of those same heroic interventions?
Again, what is the collateral damage when we place such intense pressure on a profession which is already under strain, and then demand physical, sacrificial heroism day after day after day? It’s ER doctors who are pushed to the absolute breaking point, and may finally commit suicide because the pressure is simply too great. Does God desire such a death? Is this the sacrifice we imagine when we called this doctor a hero? The collateral damage is moral injury, when people are traumatized by the “heroism” of having to make morally impossible choices on a constant basis, traumatized to such an extent that they feel immeasurable guilt, shame, and finally, an inability to face even one more day alive. This “heroism” is twisted, dangerous, and a disease.
Is this the kind of heroism we want to celebrate? I’m pretty certain that Stephen would be horrified that his example led us here. Let’s stop celebrating heroism with nonsense like Blue Angel flyovers, and let’s start being obedient to the will of God: that we have a society that doesn’t need heroism in the first place.