As I prepare to go on the Jonathan Daniels' 50th anniversary pilgrimage, I am pondering what martyrdom means. Throughout the history of Christianity we have had those who have 'died for their faith' or whose lives have been laid down for others because of their faith. Originally the term martus meant witness, but as the years after the death of Jesus, many who followed him were seen as those who threatened the control of the Imperium.
Saint Stephen is noted as the first Christian martyr (Acts 7ff). Stephen was fairly inflammatory in his preaching so it isn't surprising; however, the stoning of him did mark for the early followers of Christ's Way a powerful image of the cost of discipleship. The 2nd century was
filled with those who were willing to lay down their lives for the faith. The attitudes of Roman or even local rulers were that Christians were 'obnoxious' or rebellious. Christians were pacifists and refused to serve as conscripts in the Roman army. And they refused to worship the Roman gods which was considered treasonous. Just how destabilizing Christians were to the Roman Pax is questionable, but Christians were targeted and harassed the way that minority cultures or movements are today. That so many were martyred says more about the fear that permeated Roman imperial society than it did about Christian bravery.
Martyrdom is still known in Christianity. Even today, Christians
are being targeted and killed because of their faith. Well-lived Christian lives are still frightening to those who wish to control others. For many Christians the witness of those who have laid their lives down for others is still the 'seed of the Church".
It makes me deeply sad that in order to do good, or preach good, or to live the goodness of life in the name of Jesus is still grounds for people to kill. The need to kill those who are different is centered in the fear of those who are 'other'. The other sadness comes from those who
I do not believe that the cross is the sign that demands suffering despite Gregory I. Nothing in the life of Christ teaches that we are to take on suffering as a way of faithful living. It is interesting that the cross does not become a symbol of Christianity until the 3rd or 4th century once the imperial powers have taken over the Church.
So what does it mean to 'pick up the cross and follow after me'? Does it mean that I am to try to emulate Christ in the way I am to die? No! It means that I need to be willing to live my life so freely and so lovingly that death has no power over me. It means that if I am asked for my life to save others, I can give it. But it does not mean that I am to go seek ways of giving up my life to emulate Jesus' death. 2 Cor. 6:2-10 speaks of the kind of integrity that life in Christ means--it is a kind of living that defies the critique that often happens to those who try to follow the Way of Jesus. For invariably, living the life of Christ mocks the status quo in societies in which there are classes, boast have/have nots societies, or those who rule over others.
In the particular martyrdom of Jon Daniels: he was not killed
because he was preaching something that the people thought was heretical. Jon was living in a way and teaching in a way that made others take notice that their lives could be transformed if they became convinced that there were others who would stand beside them in the face of those who would deny their God-given dignity. Tom Coleman, Jon's killer, was not necessarily an evil man. He was a frightened man who aimed to control his community and saw Jon, Joyce, Richard and Ruby as those who would invade his life and change his ways. He was a man who was caught in an evil system--a racist system that said that White should rule. And for years that system had said it was right to do what did.
Martyrdom doesn't really make saints. God does that. But martyrdom makes a society question. The death of one who is willing to sacrifice his/her life because it can be lived freely is so awe-inspiring that it attracts the worn eyes of those bored by life caught up in meaninglessness. Jon's death captured the imagination of hearts that had grown tired of those who practiced a benign faith. It caught the attention of those in Northeast who had been blind to the plight of people in the South--
Blacks and Whites caught in an evil system. It was a system that masked the reality of humanity with layers of religious bias, socio-economic lies, historical jingoism and convenient anti-intellectualism.
The witness of Jon's death brought a conscientiousness to the 'powers that be' at the time that brought legal changes for our nation. Is that what Jon and Judy Upham were doing in Selma? Or
was it just naivete? It might have been, but there is something about lives that are lived in the freedom of Christianity. They weren't thinking about their grade points when they responded to the call of Dr. King. They were living lives freed by their love for God that would allow them to help others know the freedoms they knew. They were supported by institutions that allowed them to act on their faith. And had grown up in families that engendered the kind of fairness that Jesus' life characterized. They had responded in a manner that changed their lives. And would change the lives of others.
Jon wasn't thinking when he pushed Ruby from the path of Tom Coleman's shotgun. He didn't have to. His faith was so integral to his living that it was 'natural' to do it. That is a saint! One who doesn't even have to think about laying down his life for another.
So martyrdom is not so much about the death of a saint. It is about the living of those who are willing to live with such abandon that they are not afraid of death, not afraid of what others think, not afraid of the cost. They live only in sight of God's love and that is enough.
Holy One, I do not believe that you have asked me to be a martyr, but you have invited me to live a life worthy of your calling. Grant that through the witness of others, I can keep the freedom you have wrought in me ever before me and allow me to continue to live in ways that can help others to know the joy that living in you means.