[Note: this piece is more overtly Christian and theological than other posts on this site. It asks how Christians ought to behave and engage others in our postmodern context for the purpose of cultivating healthier dialog.]
Ever been taunted for worshipping a donkey-god? Believe it or not, bullies once mocked a young man named Alexamenos for doing just that. At the Palatine Antiquarian Museum in Rome, one can see a graffito (the singular word for graffiti) from a plaster wall in a Roman boarding school. It’s one of the oldest images of Jesus we possess today (it is probably from the late 2nd or early 3rd century). By depicting Jesus as having the head of an ass, it mocks both the Christian messiah and also a boarding-school student, who was a follower of Jesus’ movement. Beneath the image is the phrase “Alexamenos worships his god.”
What advice would you give someone like Alexamenos? And what should we say today to young people when others deride their faith in similar ways? The stories of young people in our era have a lot in common with those from the first three centuries of Christian history. In both periods, multiple cultures bumped into each other in big cities, with diverse languages and ethnicities, competing philosophical perspectives, and a dominant culture marked by excess and decay. Advice to Alexamenos will, therefore, help us think creatively about ways to equip young men and women to be faithful in the twenty first century.
Should Alexamenos try and “fight” back? Should he become a bully himself and scratch a picture of Jesus stomping on his enemy’s favorite symbol? (We do something like this today, by the way, when we have car emblems that depict Christian fish chomping on Darwin fish.) Should he pray for a Christian emperor to arise with armies to root out blasphemous acts of vandalism? Should he leave his school and stick to institutions where everyone believes the same thing and encourages each other’s worship of the true image of Christ? There aren’t easy answers to these questions.