My friend Marc has a talent for writing tongue-in-cheek lyrics for hymns. He has used this, at times, to great effect, but the nadir of his accomplishments came one day when he was still in seminary. One of his classmates asked him, on the day it was needed, to dash off something about the Martyrs of New Guinea. Marc didn’t have time to research them, but he did write a quick ditty about missionaries encountering cannibals, being boiled, and served up for dinner. The only problem was, the actual Martyrs of New Guinea were European missionaries who stayed in Papua to tend the Christian congregations during World War II, refusing to evacuate even when the danger of remaining became apparent, and who were executed by the Japanese. In the words of their bishop, “We could never hold up our faces again if, for our own safety, we all forsook Him and fled, when the shadows of the Passion began to gather around Him in His spiritual and mystical body, the Church in Papua.”
I mention this whole incident because it illustrates to me the profound unease that many of us feel around the issue of missionaries and of martyrdom. Perhaps because the questions they raise in our minds make us aware of our own struggles for faithfulness, there is a tendency to try to neutralize their example by thinking of martyrs as funny, strange, off-balance, different — anything other than what they in fact were: people who loved God and their fellow human beings enough to demonstrate that love to the point of death.
This week, our bluff has been called. Reliable reports document the deaths of scores of female church workers in South Sudan. The women had fled the violence in their own communities to take refuge on the grounds of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Bor when rebels descended on the church and raped and killed them. According to the news service of the Anglian Communion, “five of the women—Dorcas Abuol Bouny and Akut Mayem Yar, both 72, Tabitha Akuang, 60, and Mary Alek Akech and Martha Agok Mabior, both 70—worked as pastors in the church. A prominent lay leader, Agel Mabior, 72, was also killed.” It is not clear whether these women were killed by people who hated their faith, or whether their faith led them to take on compassionate roles in a place of danger.
These women are not, of course, the only modern martyrs. We think of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., but the reality is that people are dying almost every day for their faith. Two people in a cathedral in Russia last week. Group after group in Nigeria, in Sudan, in Pakistan, and in other places too numerous to count.
Take a moment to bow your head and pray for their souls. Pray for all our brothers and sisters in Christ who keep their faith in dangerous places, for the Jews and Muslims and other persons of faith who pray behind drawn curtains and whisper their teachings to their children. Pray in thanksgiving for the gift that we have been given of living in a place where we can practice our faith in freedom. Pray to use that freedom well.
Then go out of your home today and be kind to someone whose beliefs do not match your own. Stand up for someone who is being harassed or ignored. Our communities will be safe for people of all faith traditions and of none as long as we make them so. Be part of the solution.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.