The jailer reported the words to Paul, "The magistrates have sent orders that you be released. Now, then, come out and go in peace." But Paul said to them, "They have beaten us publicly, even though we are Roman citizens and have not been tried, and have thrown us into prison. And now, are they going to release us secretly? By no means. Let them come themselves and lead us out (Acts 16:36-37).
I often stop at this section in my reading through Acts and mull this scene over and over in my mind -- especially because this incident has close application to the time in which we live.
Roman citizens of the 1st century enjoyed special rights not granted to non-Romans. One of those privileges was exemption from beating and imprisonment without due process of law. No wonder the city leaders became alarmed when they learned the status of their two latest prisoners.
We find also in this text St. Paul used his Roman citizenship to force a public apology from the magistrates. In so doing he guaranteed the new believers he and Silas had won for Christ would receive civil protection from political and religious harassment.
That is why St. Paul’s use of his citizenship rights provides us an important lesson.
Many today try to intimidate God's children into silence with regard to public policies and morality. They say our religious views have no place in government, in schools, in courts – even in the marketplace.
But that’s not at all what the apostles believed, nor what the Church teaches. Christian citizens not only have a right to actively participate in our government by speaking (and voting) against immorality and injustice, but we have an obligation to do so. Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: (paragraph 2239) It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom . . . .
Then again, (paragraph 2242) The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. . . . "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." “We must obey God rather than men . . . .”
From the standpoint of evangelism, Saints Paul and Silas teach us that by wise use of our rights as citizens, new converts won to Christ will find protection from religious harassment at the hands of civil authorities.
And just as important, our boldness in the face of social, political and cultural intimidation will enable not-yet-converts to hear the gospel presented without fear of reprisal.
Saints Paul and Silas, pray for us.