Sunday, 10 March 2013


Metropolitan Benjamin
I ended my last posting with the conclusion that I'm probably not the stuff of which martyrs are made. However, I also made the point that nobody can be sure of how they will react in any given circumstances. Most of my examples were drawn from the early persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire but, bringing things up to date, I find the story of Benjamin, Metropolitan of Petrograd at the time of the Russian revolution, particularly poignant. As the turmoil of the revolution was beginning, he welcomed the opportunity to bear witness to the Gospel in a more meaningful way than had been possible in the relatively comfortable life of a bishop in pre-revolutionary Russia. “In my childhood and adolescence,” he wrote, “I immersed myself in reading the lives of the saints, and was enraptured by their heroism and their holy inspiration. With all my heart I sorrowed over the fact that times had changed and one no longer had to suffer what they suffered. Times have changed again, and the opportunity has been opened to suffer for Christ both from one's own people and from strangers!” For his resolute opposition to the excesses and injustices of the early days of the revolution, he was shot in 1922.

Another point worth making about martyrdom is that it is a willingness to give one's life for a cause and does not involve taking life. I find it extremely sad that, in recent years, ‘martyrdom’ has become almost a dirty word, associated with killing oneself and innocent bystanders as a political act of terror rather than the voluntary sacrifice of one’s own life to bear witness to one’s faith. As Gandhi said: “For this cause (abolition of South Africa's pass laws) I too would be prepared to die but there is no cause for which I would kill.” The recently canonized Orthodox saint Alexander Schmorell, even while fighting the horrors of the Nazi regime, vowed never to kill ‘either Russian or German.’

Since the Great Schism, the Orthodox Church has only venerated as saints those who were baptized Orthodox. I have no problem with this but feel that there is a case for also formally honouring in some way those from other denominations who have born witness to the truth of Christ's Gospel. Perhaps we should emulate the state of Israel which honours gentiles who have performed outstanding service to the Jewish people as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Certainly, all denominations and traditions have their fair share of martyrs for the faith, even when their understanding of the faith differed from that of others.

“There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief. … Modern Christian martyrs are motivated by faith but our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.” These words were spoken by  the sub-dean of Westminster at the dedication of ten new statues above the west door  of the Anglican Westminster Abbey in London. Their niches had remained empty since the Middle Ages but in 1998 it was decided to fill the spaces with ten statues of 20th century martyrs of all Christian denominations as a recognition that martyrdom crosses the boundaries of place, tradition and Church. The ten statues are from left to right:

    Maximilian Kolbe (Roman Catholic) 1941 
    Manche Masemola (Anglican) 1928
    Janani Luwum (Anglican) 1977
   Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (Orthodox). 1918
   Dr. Martin Luther King (Baptist). 1968
   Oscar Romero (Roman Catholic) 1980
   Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran). 1945
   Esther John (Presbyterian) 1960
   Lucian Tapiede (Anglican) 1941
  Wang Zhiming (Protestant) 1972
The stories of all ten are inspiring and well worth looking up.

Ten years later, in 2008, an even more dramatic example of cross-denominational reconciliation took place in Oxford, when a plaque was unveiled commemorating twenty-three martyrs from Oxfordshire or the University of Oxford, killed during the bitter religious conflicts of the Reformation between 1539 and 1681. What made this event unusual, and possibly unique, was that the martyrs were both Roman Catholic and Protestant. During the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I, Roman Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants killed Roman Catholics and Protestants even killed different kinds of Protestant. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University and the originator of the idea of the plaque, said that humble people as well as dons and great clergymen had died, many of whose names were unknown. The memorial sought to commemorate them all, “from Oxfordshire parish priests who were hanged for leading the people in protest against Edward VI’s Reformation, to a carpenter who built hiding places for Catholic priests, to Protestants who proclaimed their faith in the face of Queen Mary’s move to restore the old faith to England.” Beneath the names of the twenty-three are the words: “Those whose names are known stand for all who suffered.”


Nor should we forget that martyrdom because one is of a particular religious faith isn't restricted to Christians.  After 9/11, the tormented American Mark Stroman went on a rampage to kill 'Arab Muslims.' He shot and killed two men and seriously injured a third. The tragedy was that all three, although Muslims, were not Arabs at all but from south Asia. Stroman was caught, sentenced to death and executed on July 21 2011. Before the execution, the surviving victim, a devout Muslim, fought indefatigably to have the sentence commuted. He said, “I'm trying to do my bit not to allow the loss of another human life. I'll knock every door possible. In Islam it says that saving one human life is the same as saving the entire mankind.”

We may well ask “Who is my neighbour?”

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