Stanley Hauerwas has written about the mass suicide at “Jonestown” when hundreds of followers of Jim Jones and his “People’s Temple” took their lives and the lives of their children (p. 106). He notes that in contemporary media accounts of the event two dominant theories were put forth to explain Jonestown: (1) The followers of Jim Jones were under the hypnotic spell of a maniac. They were insane victims of an insane leader who led them to suicide. (2) The followers of Jim Jones were mostly poor, ignorant, oppressed people whose suffering made them easy prey for the alluring promises of a crazed messiah like Jones. In other words both theories assumed that in the modern world only insane people would die for what they believed.
In the United States we have “freedom of religion,” which means that we are free to exercise our faith — as long as we do so within certain limits, as long as I do not become a fanatic — like the poor, deranged folk at Jonestown who committed suicides rather than forsake their belief in Jim Jones. Although we have freedom to be religious, that does not seem to involve freedom to die for what we believe, because only a crazed fanatic would do that.
Yet the story of Stephen reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, mentally balanced religion that once there were Christians who quite joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself in order to remain faithful. Luke does not demean the sacrifice of Stephen by reducing his death to psychological or sociological factors, the way our media explained Jonestown. Rather, Luke sees Stephen as a hero of the faith, a quite rational person who died for the same faith b which he lived. Indeed not to die for what you hold most dear would seem, to the church of Acts, to be the essence of irrationality, even insanity. So many Christians (and Jesus) died at the hands of the Empire because it was impossible to reconcile the Christian claim — that is, that God, not nations, rules the world — with those of a progressive world empire. Martyrs continued to follow the path of Stephen until such a time as the church’s political threat to the empire was obscured by a new theology in which Christians relinquished their own politically imperialistic claims to “obey God rather than men” (5:29; cf. W.H. Frend).
Luke has no quarrel with people who are willing to die for their faith — to die for a faith that, unlike that of Jim Jones, is true. Stephen was not a suicide, for as a Jew he knew that his life belonged to God, his life was (as his dying prayer indicated) held in the hands of God. Prohibited from taking our own lives yet ready to give our lives if our continued existence means forsaking our faith, this is how we must live and die as Christians. What is worth living and dying for? That is a question behind Acts 7:54-8:3.
From Interpretation Commentary: Acts by W.H. Willimon, pp. 66-67.