Tag Archives: martyrdom

Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

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Turning the Other Cheek; Blessing Those Who Persecute You

Or not:

Suspected Islamic militants bombed worshipers at three Christian churches on Sunday in northern Nigeria, killing some 23 people. Frustrated with the government’s inability to stop a string of such attacks in recent months, some Christians responded today with reprisals, killing at least 7 more people.

More than 150 people, mostly Christians, have been injured from today’s violence. Police have not confirmed casualty figures, which are tallies from hospital officials.

In 2012 alone, more than 10 Christian churches have been attacked in Nigeria. Boko Haram, a militant Islamic sect, has claimed responsibility for some of these attacks, including attacks on two churches last Sunday…

The explosions sparked violence in Kaduna as Christian youths retaliated, moving around with cutlasses and sticks among other weapons. The youths burned one mosque and broke into and vandalized another.

About 35 victims of the reprisal attacks have been taken to St. Gerard’s Hospital, according to the hospital’s public relations officer. Seven of them were dead on arrival, burned by their presumed assailants.

This, unfortunately fails both the test of pragmatism and idealism, something noted by a local analyst:

“The reprisal attack is wrong because the solution to the country’s insecurity is by ensuring dialogue with the sect members who are attacking the Christians and even Muslims,” says Ignatius Kasuwa, an analyst from Kaduna state, the scene of today’s church attacks.

Mr. Kasuwa also appealed to the government to immediately overcome the issue of insecurity in the country, stressing that “Muslims and Christians worship God but reprisal is against the teaching of the two religions.”

Perhaps even more unfortunately, all of this was entirely foreseen. The church in Nigeria has suffered terrible atrocities, the like of which I have no direct analog in my personal experience (nor do most Westerners), and so it is important to note that the above is not intended to be a statement of judgment against the Nigerians. It is meant to be an expression of hope that my brothers and sisters who have the opportunity to glorify God by participating in the sufferings of Jesus and bearing admirably the weight of persecution will take the opportunity afforded by global attention to be a light to the world, shining forth the humble, powerful, indomitable spirit of the faith.

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Invade Iran (et al) for Christ!

When will the West act against persecution of Christians in the Middle East? That is the question posed in a recent Fox News article. The specific catalyst for the call to arms is the impending execution of Youcef Nadarkhani for his failure “to renounce his Christian beliefs and recognize the prophet Mohammed as God’s messenger.” Through the course of the article, however, the writer rattles off a laundry list of Muslim offenses against Christianity: attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt and their subsequent mass exodus, the targeting of Lebanese Christians by Syrians, not to mention the targeting of Syrian Christians by Syrians, the abuse of Christians in Saudi Arabia, Christians living in peril in the Gaza strip, and the hordes of Christian refugees that have come out of Iraq. The author seems to be peculiarly focused on the Middle East, apparently unconcerned by Muslim persecution of Christians in southeast Asia (for example) or state persecution of them in China. Nevertheless, the problem is real and one that warrants appropriate Christian attention.

Yet, if the question is when will the West “exert their muscle to help them,” I hope the answer is never. Why should they? After all, the governments of the US and Europe are not Christian governments. The very fact that they would be enticed to display their coercive powers to end persecution is a testament to that. There is a fairly clear image in the Scriptures and throughout Christian history about how Christians respond to persecution. Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Perpetua, Felicitas, and so many more all provide stories of heroism in the face of state or religious tyranny that have a distinctly Christian flavor. They all draw their inspiration, curiously enough, from a prototypical martyr: Christ. His declaration from the cross was not “when will someone have the courage to stand up on my behalf” but “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” His vision of the Christian community was never “they will fight for my life” but, in direct contradiction to this, “they do not fight, because my kingdom is not of this world.” And the proposition that “Christian nations” might withdraw humanitarian aid from countries who persecute Christians seems strangely at odds with the command “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

There was a time when we realized that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Centuries of sloth and spiritual atrophy have caused us to begin to labor under the delusion that all people should and do have the right to the free exercise of religion. It’s a nice vision of the world, but it is nonetheless a fantasy. It is time to regain something of the courage of Tertullian, so that we can once again declare that “you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are” (though my preference has always been for Justin Martyr’s phrasing, “You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us”). We should take up the morbid jeer of Polycarp, “Death to the atheists” (with all it’s ironic, near suicidal resignation). Most of all though, we need to remember that Paul taught us that if our enemy is hungry we should feed him, if he is thirsty we should give him something to drink. Finally, we must always cling to what Peter told his suffering flock: the appropriate response to persecution is neither muscle flexing nor victimization but triumph. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

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Texts on Thanksgiving: Cyprian and the Roman Martyrs

This text is from a letter of Cyprian to those awaiting martyrdom in Rome:

Cyprian to the martyrs and confessors in Christ our Lord and in God the Father, everlasting salvation. I gladly rejoice and am thankful, most brave and blessed brethren, at hearing of your faith and virtue, wherein the Church, our Mother, glories. Lately, indeed, she gloried, when, in consequence of an enduring confession, that punishment was undergone which drove the confessors of Christ into exile; yet the present confession is so much the more illustrious and greater in honour as it is braver in suffering. The combat has increased, and the glory of the combatants has increased also. Nor were you kept back from the struggle by fear of tortures, but by the very tortures themselves you were more and more stimulated to the conflict; bravely and firmly you have returned with ready devotion, to contend in the extremest contest.

From the response of the Roman clergy on behalf of those suffering:

In which matter we ought to give you also, and we do give you, abundant thanks, that you have brightened the darkness of their prison by your letters; that you came to them in whatever way you could enter; that you refreshed their minds, robust in their own faith and confession, by your addresses and letters; that, following up their felicities with worthy praises, you have inflamed them to a much more ardent desire of heavenly glory; that you urged them forward; that you animated, by the power of your discourse, those who, as we believe and hope, will be victors by and by; so that although all may seem to come from the faith of those who confess, and from the divine mercy, yet they seem in their martyrdom to have become in some sort debtors to you.

In these complimenting passages we see an overflowing of thanksgiving from those who are perhaps least in a place to be grateful. Cyprian thanks God for the martyrs, not necessarily because they are being forced to suffer but because they are a true witness in their suffering. Cyprian is grateful to be associated with so powerful a testimony to the power of God’s goodness as those who would suffer willingly for the truth. He would follow their example at the end of his life. In turn, the martyrs echo Cyprian’s gratitude with overwhelming gratitude of their own. When darkness begins to creep up on them in their cells awaiting torment and death, they are grateful to be part of a community that glories in them and stands behind them unto death. Even when they are most isolated – separated from society, hidden away from their families, and condemned to death – they are never truly alone. They are part of a community, a heavenly body from which they cannot be separated by earthly means. They are sustained by the gratitude of their Christian family and they reciprocate by sustaining others with that same spirit of thanksgiving.

When the community of faith was still very much struggling in its infancy, Cyprian and the martyrs are abundantly thankful to part of the body of Christ. How often do we take it for granted?

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The Best Part About Atheist Persecution

The aggressive and repressive atheism of the USSR intrigues me. John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Orthodox Church, gives a very brief history of the Russian church during this period, and some of the tribulations he describes are astonishing.

Under communism all expression of Christian freedom was dangerous. All formal evangelistic and catechetical work was forbidden to the church…The Bolshevik government rapidly passed anti-religious legislation even before it had secured a totalitarian grasp on the state. It confiscated all private and all ecclesiastical property in December 1917, and in January 1918 withdrew any state subsidy for ecclesiastical institutions, separating church and state, and outlawing any form of religious instruction of the state’s citizens. Between 1917 and 1923, when the Bolshevik zeal was hot, twenty-eight Russian bishops and 1,400 priests were executed.

From there McGuckin goes on to describe the thousands more, both clergy and laity, who were sent to work in labor camps, many of whom died while imprisoned there. If the human cost were not incalculable enough, the USSR went further still. They converted churches into museums and cinemas, stripping them of their icons, relics, and religious memorabilia. Whatever had value was sold in Western markets at obscenely reduced prices (considering that the often ancient items were in fact priceless); whatever did not was burned or defaced. And still the state atheism rolled on.

In 1926 the law explicitly forbade the continuing exercise of communal monastic life in the fewer than half the monasteries that had somehow managed to carry on in spite of the persecutions, a measure that accelerated the monastic decline, but still could not quence monasticism completely. The measures against the church were conducted by the ‘League of Militant Atheism’ with cells in every village. In 1927 the Council of People’s Commissars tried to initiate a Five Year Plan, whose aim was to ‘eradicate the very concept of God from the minds of the people, and to leave not a single house of prayer standing in the whole territory of the USSR.’

McGuckin’s account is, he admits himself, brief and incomplete, and yet at the same time it feels like he never runs out of new and horrible ways that the government of the USSR could enforce its program of dogmatic atheism. Monks and nuns were sent to Gulags and asylums (on the grounds that to be a monastic is to be insane). Christian universities were closed. Mobs were organized to interrupt the liturgy. McGuckin notes, and cites others who have the same observation, that the persecution under the communist regime in the USSR has been the most extensive, both in relative casualties and sustained duration, in the history of the church. The cost is of course beyond the grasp of cold numbers, but he estimates that the Soviets killed 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, and 120,000 monastics.

Yet in all that, this is what truly struck me:

Even so the religious life of Russian Orthodoxy was irrepressible. Even in the dark times of communist persecution the Orthodox attendance at the divine liturgy was far higher than European church attendance.

It cannot help but reinforce for me the truth that a church that does not suffer with Christ cannot call itself the body of Christ, not in the truest sense.

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