Beloved Criminals

Beloved Criminals

Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul. Fr Euan Marley argues that the martyrdoms of Saints Peter and Paul resulted from their compulsion to tell the truth.

Today we celebrate the death of two criminals. At least according to the officials of the Roman Empire, they were criminals. They spent a great deal of their life, in and out of prisons of various forms. They were finally executed in the city of Rome. Since both dedicated their lives to the proposition that a man who had been executed by the Roman authorities, in the most brutal form of execution available to the Romans, was the redeemer of the world, it is hardly surprising that they should themselves be brought to a similar end. What gives us the right to celebrate these two criminals? This is not a simple question. What we can say right away is that the proposition that no one can ever break the law, even for a just purpose cannot be held by Christians. Our religion was founded by people who refused to obey the instructions of various authorities and who paid a price for this. I am careful to say, ‘a’ price, rather than ‘the’ price, which might imply that the punishments meted out to Peter and Paul were just, even by the standards of Roman and Jewish law.

There are two ways to rightfully break the law. One is when we are refusing to do some evil which the law or the will of the authorities is trying to make us to do. The other is when we are trying to do some good where the law prevents us. This justification for doing good is more difficult to establish, than for not doing evil. It has to be a compelling good, one which no one would reasonably refuse to do. Often enough there may be good reasons why actions are forbidden. Sometimes there aren’t good reasons but it may be best to observe the law in the hope of it being changed. When we choose to break the law, we must always try to do it in a way that does not destroy the law.

What about our two criminals then? We revere them as great saints. St Peter with St John explains his disobedience to the temple authorities in these words, 19 But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge;

for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ (Act 4:19-20)

Neither St Peter or St Paul were trying to destroy the law. St Paul is very careful to maintain his rights as best he can. When about to be flogged, he asks

‘Is it permissible for you to beat a Roman man who is not condemned?’ (Act 22:25 ).

St Paul is not trying to destroy the law. St Paul in fact allows the law to bring him to Rome, when he appeals to Caesar and has to be sent to Rome, even though, if he had not, he could have been released. In Jerusalem having upbraided Ananias for his breaking of the law by having him struck, St Paul then apologizes because he had not realized he was the high priest, and quotes Torah about the need to respect authority. (Acts 23:5).

St Peter and St Paul are not lawless. They are impelled by a specific impulse to tell a specific truth that cannot be hidden, or suppressed. There is a Greek word which describes this impulse. It is the word ‘parrhesia’, which means the ability to speak the truth, literally to say everything. It is a key word in the Acts. St Peter speaks with parrhesia at Pentecost (2:29). They Church in Jerusalem ask for the gift of parrhesia, (4:29) and at the end of the Acts when St Paul is in Rome, awaiting his trial, he is able to teach with parrhesia (28:31). Sometimes prison might be the best place from which to teach the truth. Many of the works which have changed our world have been written in or about unjust imprisonment. Parrhesia is knows no barriers, because it is the truth of God, spoken by the power of God. Today our beloved criminals teach us not just the truth but how to preach it.

Could you help us to bring the Word of God to more people?


Readings: Acts 12:1-11|2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18|Matthew 16:13-19

fr. Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.