(about 800 words to help start your post-election life)
The Man Who Vanquished the Gladiators
It was around 400AD, and the Roman Empire was in decline, though its sinful indulgences continued unabated. Among these were the barbaric gladiator “games” held in various Coliseum-like stadiums. In these death arenas, gladiators fought—frequently to their bloodied and mutilated end—to the roaring, hissing, and thumbs-up delight of thousands of paying customers. It was a hideous spectacle, applauded by emperor and citizenry alike, though in time it led in part to that empire’s demise.
Gladiatorial-type games had been around for a millennium, and were a brutal, but wildly popular part of Roman culture for several hundreds of those years. While some occasionally spoke out against them, the blood-lust was so intoxicating that few could kick the habit or even wanted to try. Consequently, many continued to die in their own pool of blood, to the thrill of the throng.
Still, the barbarity did come to an end, and here’s part of how it happened. According to the early Christian historian, Theodoret, “Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and…traveled to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the…fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor was informed of this he…put an end to that impious spectacle.”
Some accounts add the plausible detail that, while trying to stop the blood-letting, Telemachus repeatedly shouted, “Stop in the name of Jesus! Stop in the name of Jesus!” Whatever the details, this humble, seemingly inconsequential man helped stanch the flow of human blood. By his valiant love, Telemachus vanquished the gladiators.
The Election Has Happened: Now What?
I’m not into monasticism, and all the legalistic baggage that it has often carried, but I have to confess that when I first read about Telemachus 20 years ago, I was stirred. You don’t have to buy into asceticism to learn from this ascetic. Here was a man who, in seeing an evil, did what he felt was the only authentically loving thing to do. And in so doing, this weak, probably comic-looking man made a great difference (I say comic-looking as I imagine his brown-robed small-built figure, shuffling between two NFL-sized warriors, trying to stop them from fighting). Telemachus did not make a great difference by high-level strategy or power-politics or well-orchestrated campaigns. He made a great difference by manifesting great love; love so courageous and sacrificial that it could not be ignored. And therein is our lesson.
This post will go public soon after the 2020 election; right at the time when we all will be wondering, “Now what?” The answer is the same as before the election: the next bold loving thing needed is our now what. It should be obvious to all of us by now that politics never changes hearts. People who love others, and do the right thing in the Name of Jesus, change hearts. When love acts with courage, as it did in noble Telemachus, things change. Good overcomes evil, not so much in the ballot box as in the act of forgiveness, in the word of gospel witness, in the city mission, in the foster family, in the pregnancy center, in the street-level church, in the racial healing ministry, in the refugee camp, in the neighborhood gathering, in the hospitable home, in the brave cross-cultural conversation, in the prison cell, in the gentle needed rebuke, in the bold prophetic word (delivered with tears, not rage), in the cause of justice (as biblically, not secularly defined), in the small group encouragement; yes, in all the actual arenas of life.
Paul calls this a “present evil age” (Galatians 1:3); and tells us to overcome that evil with good (Romans 12:21). But how does that happen? Not primarily by pulling the right lever on November 3. You may have pulled the “right” lever on Tuesday without ever really doing the right thing that will matter to others on Wednesday or any other day. It is possible to politicize with the tongues of men and angels, but be devoid of the courageous, committed, and caring love that makes it count for something (1 Cor. 13:1).
In this light, last Tuesday didn’t change anything. We are, as always, to answer each moment with a willingness in love to stand up, step forward, start serving, and stay true. This voting day’s results don’t alter any of that. We were called to this before this election, and we are called to this now that the election is over. And this, my friends, is very much what needs to happen next.