Walking into Westminster Abbey you will see at the entrance, statues of ten significant martyrs of the 20th century including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Romero. Today the term martyr refers to one who because of their faith and belief was killed by a persecutor.
So whom does this include? Is King Jr. a martyr? Todd Johnson, scholar from Boston has widened the definition so that in his soon to be published paper “Christian Martyrdom as a Pervasive Phenomenon” (Journal of Modern Society and Social Science to be published in the Nov/Dec issue this year), estimates there have been 160,000 martyrs per year over last decade of the 20th century which adds up to 1.6 million between 1990 and 2000.
The rational for these numbers is based on including those who are “In situations of witness” referring to “…the individual’s entire lifestyle, regardless of whether or not he or she was actively proclaiming at the time of death.” This of course greatly widens the field and substantially increases the numbers counted. It should be noted that Evangelical scholar, Thomas Shirrmacher strongly disputes those numbers.*
My point today is not to get between these two heavyweight scholars, but simply to alert you to a concern that too often we minimize martyrdom because the number of those who die because they are Christian makes little news. Too often ignored by governments, played down by media and dismissed by the university community, we as Christians are called on to make known the reality of Christians paying the ultimate sacrifice in dying.
Jesus tells the parable of the widow denied justice because of an unjust judge. A woman, a widow, is trapped by the unwillingness of a judge, who is possibly by a bribe if denying her justice. The judge finally gives in to her pursuit for justice. He describes it this way in a boxer’s term: “Before she gives me a black eye, I will relent.” In the parable Jesus ironically compares the unjust judge to God. In essence he is saying, “If an unjust judge will cave in and meet this vulnerable woman’s demand for justice because of threat to ruin his public image, imagine how much more the heavenly Father will provide justice to those who press him.”
I tell this story because in the face of martyrdom, which is one of the worst forms of injustice, the Lord Jesus tells us that pressing for justice is within his concerns.
That is balanced by a biblical warning that persecution will come by way of obedience to Christ. Let me provide a couple of verses:
“…they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to the synagogues and prisons and you will be brought before kings and governments, and all on account of my name.” Luke 21:12
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” James 1:2
“…if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. I Peter 4:16
Here we have the juxtaposition of a biblical dimension: on one side we are warned that persecution will come simply because of one’s faith witness. Yet on the other hand we are encouraged to seek for justice. Between these two variables, today here in Brussels, and in our respective worlds of influence, we search for ways and means to both witness and secure protection for those being persecuted and tortured and seek for justice for those killed.
Three years ago three major global Christian communities (The World Council of Churches, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance) came together in agreeing to make public common statement called Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World, Recommendations for Conduct.
The Preamble reads:
“Mission belongs to the very being of the church. Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian. At the same time, it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings.”
A background to this joint call for witness was that some countries were contemplating passing laws which would make it a criminal act for one to witness to another, resulting in conversion from one religion to another. I suggest you go the web site of one of these groups and read the document for yourself. It includes a list of ethical guidelines in witness, advising on how one gives witness in line with fairness human rights and in line with the ethical call of the Gospel.
The point is that in this world of religions communities mixing by way of immigration, commerce and cultural exchange, as much as we would want any form of witness to Christ-like and respectful of human rights, not to witness is a repudiation of the very nature of Gospel witness. As the joint statement says, “Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian.”
Each of here have stories of both individual and community wide massacres that can only be denoted as martyrdom. The intolerance and anger which faith convoluted with culture seems to inspire, is getting worse not better.
As Christians, is it better then not to witness and so to alleviate the possibly of persecution and martyrdom? I’m sure that issues other than faith exacerbate situations that lead to violence. And surely the guidelines in the joint statement are important, both to work to reduce violence and to act in ways that honor our Savior.
However not to witness is to be disobedient to the biblical call. If one truly believes that Jesus is the way to salvation and eternal life, is one to be silent?
The way forward is not easy.
Miriam Adeney in Kingdom without Borders, tells the story of an Ethiopian pastor who in the 1980s was thrown into prison. President Nyerere hopped onto a plane and flew to Ethiopia, asking the president for release of the pastor and passage out of the country. The release was granted.
But the pastor said, “No, I am not leaving the country. My place is here. If I leave, it will discourage all those pastors who do not have the opportunity to go. It will also undermine all I have said when I urged Christians not to desert our country in its time of need.”
In a matter of days government soldiers killed him.
At the same time another pastor Assefa was repeatedly imprisoned and released all the while training some 500-student leaders. When governmental policies changed and Christian faith was given freedom, it was often said when a person had problems, “Go to the God of Assefa. He can help.”
Each pastor showed faith. One died the other lived. But both were faithful in witness.
We may debate the definition of a martyr and we will seek to bring freedom to those trapped in persecution and facing death, but we will continue to give witness to this Jesus of Nazareth.
* Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Context of Persecution, and Martyrdom, William Carey Library, 2012