“I am a Christian.”
—The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Tr. Thomas J Heffernan. Oxford University Press, 2012.
When did you become an adult? Was there a moment, an inbreath as a child followed by a grownup outbreath? Did it happen slowly over months so that one day, sitting at a stoplight, you knew childhood had passed on for you? Did it happen in the midst of trauma? Or the confirming hands of a bishop? Or from the first reluctantly paid rent check? Or was it the birth of a child?
For Perpetua, adulthood seems to have come from all of these things. Well, likely not the literal stoplight, not her in 3rd century Roman context, but maybe crossing under the local aqueduct had the same effect.
Perpetua—woman, mother, daughter, sister, and Christian—claimed her adult authority with both hands. She told her father, “I am a Christian,” even when it would cost her life in a Roman amphitheater. She wrote her own diary, leaving us with some of the earliest words written by a Christian woman. Her short text (The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is worth a read—it likely takes less than 20 minutes, and you can find a decent free version online) reveals a deeply human story. A young woman claims her place among those with authority, and she does so as herself—full of feeling, loving toward her family, sincere in her faith.
I strongly suspect that none of us truly understands a call to martyrdom until it’s upon us, and so I cannot say how she came to her choice. Honestly, I feel sympathy for her father, who tries to dissuade her but fails to listen to what she wants. I’m not sure I could, as she does, walk away from my infant child and help the executioner find the right place on my neck.
What I can say, reading her own words, is that Perpetua does choose. Christ makes her not only a Christian—Christ also makes her an adult, an authority, a writer, a leader. So often, I think we bend the lost lives of martyrs to our own ends, to prove our own concerns and points, and I love reading Perpetua on her own terms because she is the one who bends Roman society to God’s ends. She, and perhaps her friend Felicitas as well, are consummate young adult Christians, unwilling to be defined by the categories of society and choosing, instead, a vision of a heavenly equality.
Her life, as Perpetua presents it, speaks of the importance adult freedom and choice. I presently work with young adults, and any of them would and will tell you that what they can’t stand about church communities is being categorized, compartmentalized, marginalized, fetishized. They want what any of us want—to be engaged on equal footing. In the same lineage as Perpetua, young adult Christians have chosen to swim upstream in a culture that bends anywhere but toward community, compassion, and justice. Many things bring us to adulthood—caring for sick parents, living alone, collecting a paycheck—but for young adults in the church it’s also usually Christ. God has spoken in our young adult hearts and lives, and we respond by choosing to show up. Many of us hang around long enough to suspect the ‘young’ has slipped away.
Perpetua challenges us to think about our adulthood—how we carry it out in our own life, and how we recognize it in others. As adults, how do we keep in order what’s most important in our lives? Can we, buried in the horde of goods that demand our attention (family and pleasure and vocation and career and weekends and dating and on and on…), keep the main the thing, the main thing?
As companions to other adults, how can we befriend them and hear what they have to offer without shoehorning them into our premade cultural categories? Can we let go the generational categories of marketers, and the weight of our own past, and listen?
As people who form children, how can we teach them to say yes to that still, small voice in their hearts that tells them that God has called them, too, to be authorities, writers, leaders?
[Image Credit: The history of Christianity: consisting of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth : the adventures of Paul and the apostles and the most interesting events in the progress of Christianity from the earliest period to the present time. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]