Monthly Archives: April 2010

Preferring Martyrdom

In a recent, very articulate post, Agnophilo described his difficulty with the notion of Christians embracing martyrdom.  If God can be understood in terms of a divine parent, his argument goes, wouldn’t he much rather you disingenuously recant your faith and go on living than foolishly take a stand that will see you killed to no end?  What kind of parent wouldn’t understand a child parroting the phrase, “My parents are awful people and I hate them” to save their own life?

I don’t want to challenge Agnophilo on those terms.  I imagine parents would be understanding in those circumstances; I imagine God would be understanding.  I would certainly not attempt to show Agnophilo that he’s wrong, when he’s so clearly right.  But I do want to work a little deconstruction on the idea of martyrdom that Agnophilo and his detractors presuppose.  So here are some problems with this account of martyrdom that in turn reveal some reasons that martyrdom has long been a Christian pastime.

The situation – The entire setup of the situation is problematic.  There are rare occasions when a lone assailant has a gun to the head of a Christian and says, “Do you believe in God?  Well, do you?”  One thinks of Columbine High, for instance.  But even in these rare situations, it is doubtful whether a quick, calculated recanting of the faith would save a life.  Martyrdom more often resembles either the death of Oscar Romero, shot to death while residing over Mass in 1980, or Paul of Tarsus, who was executed by the Roman Empire in 68 CE.  Very rarely, if ever, in the history of Christian martyrdom has there been an option to pay lip service to the assailant’s ideology and then continuing on in a Christian lifestyle.  Martyrdom is nearly universally the result of a regime (including at times Christendom itself) being threatened by a community conformed to the gospel.  What the gunman is looking for is not an admission to “not believing in God,” but an act of worship.  When martyrdom is thus rightly understood, a number of reasons are revealed for Christians to prefer martyrdom to disavowal.

Fidelity – The fidelity that is inherent in preferring martyrdom goes beyond mere honesty.  It is not just a matter of refusing to lie and agree to whatever the coercive power is demanding; it is a matter of having been shaped into the kind of person who provokes the violence of some rebellious power and nonetheless remaining faithful to the one who so shaped us.  We will be faithful to the God who has been faithful to us.

Death of death – Though Christians embrace life, we cling to it loosely, for it is merely a means to a more important end, which is friendship with God.  Since we know that death will not separate us from the love of God, we have no reason to fear death.  This further breaks down the metaphor with earthly parents, as death in that case would be a separation from the parent, while for the Christian death is only to “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”

Exposing the powers – Another major aspect of the Christian’s willingness to prefer martyrdom is that in the cross and resurrection, Jesus exposed that the final weapon at the disposal of all tyrants, big or small, has no power to coerce.  In refusing to be cowed by these powers, we trust in the ultimate power of God, the same God who vindicated Jesus in his resurrection.  As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Governors and kings understand those who would violently overthrow them.  What they cannot face is the power of a people who refuse to fear them because they rightly fear God.”

Efficacy – One of those commenting on Agnophilo’s post said this: “Seems to me it wouldn’t get very far.  I mean if everyone’s willing to die then who can spread the faith?  I’d think they’d rather live to see another day and make another convert.”  Which is a very practical and commonsense approach, which paradoxically turns out to be exactly wrong.   As Tertullian put it in the 2nd century, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Martyrdom and persecution generally lead to more converts, not fewer.

Having looked at this handful of aspects, it becomes clear that far from being an optional, unnecessary and foolish distraction from Christian living, the willingness for martyrdom is in fact right there in the middle of it.  There is not too much zeal for martyrdom but, perhaps, too little.  We in America are not concerned about martyrdom perhaps because we are not concerned about truth-telling and cruciformity sufficiently that we constitute any threat to those regimes that exist in rebellion to the Kingdom of God.  They wouldn’t waste their violence on us.

What do you think?  Is a willingness to die a martyr’s death an example of foolish boastfulness, or central to the way of discipleship?  Is there an unhealthy attachment to the idea of dying a martyr’s death?  And if the implausible happened and you had the gun to your head, how would it go?

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A Political Message to Christians in America

Thus, the heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other humans beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.  (Of course, though, the City of God subordinates this earthly peace to that of heaven.)
– Augustine, City of God, Book 19

For anyone involved in public life, it is a portentous time to be a Christian in America.  Between American wars and torture, healthcare reform and calls for assassination, the rhetoric of those like Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, not to mention those ostensibly within the church such as Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis, it is a potentially polarizing playing field we’re working in.

Now, it is no secret that I see the scriptures as a whole as strongly critiquing the very concept of a Christian nation, and that the church is being misled when it seeks to make America “more Christian.”  The only route to becoming Christian is repentance and faith, and nations can’t have faith; only individuals within nations can.  Nonetheless, I agree with Augustine that the church, so long as it sojourns on earth, should both foster and actively pursues an earthly peace.  I am particularly attached to Tim Keller’s phrase, that the church should be a “counter-culture that serves the common good.”

But that’s what makes it so difficult to be a Christian in public.  Working to institute the Christian version of Sharia law is fairly straightforward: just makes laws against divorce, adultery, homosexuality and talking back to parents.  Likewise, sectarian withdrawal is fairly simple: just look to the Amish.

So here is a political message to Christians in America, to help negotiate the perils of doing it in public.

Have faith in God, and be the church.

I hope this message is simple enough to avoid confusion, substantial enough to accomplish something, and balanced enough to avoid going off the rails in any one direction.

To my conservative friends, afraid of where America may be heading, concerned about the ramifications of this healthcare bill, contemplating a move to another nation, I understand your concern.  The Bible has few kind words for large governments.  Generally, powerful governments will send your sons to die in foreign lands (1 Sam 8), tax you to death and missspend the money (Ecc. 5), force you to make bricks without straw (Exo 5), and then ask for your worship and kill you when you refuse (Rev 13).

I understand your concern, and yet I say, “Have faith in God.”  Because scripture tells us that God looks on the scheming of nations and laughs (Psalm 2).  When Caesar thought he was flexing his imperial muscle building roads, imposing the “pax romana” on subjugated people and calling for a census of the republic, he was in fact facilitating the spread of the gospel and the birth of the Messiah (Luke 2, cf. Mark 1, “The time has come”).  And when the last days come, the kings of the earth will bring “the glory and honor of the nations” to account before God, which will then be used to furnish the City of God on earth (Rev 21).

To my liberal friends, banking on promises of hope and change from yet another representative of an earthly political system, trusting in either regulation or deregulation of the market to bring good news to the poor, fighting either for peace through war or a war against war, I understand as well.  The Bible does in fact present a case for governments working for the good of its people..  The state is called the minister of God, not only for the punishment of sin (as radical libertarians sometimes argue) but to promote the good (Rom 13).  In particular, the Bible models a society in which the wealthy care for the poor, in ways that appear quasi-socialist at times (Ruth 2).

I understand the goodness of your goals, and yet I say, “Be the church.”  Because scripture offers no ultimate hope for the world outside of the church, her ministry and the Kingdom to which she witnesses in her preaching and practice.  So while we work for the common good, we must be careful not to subordinate our faith and worship to the legislative practices of the state.  Most often, the framing of the political parties is not along gospel lines, leaving Christians with no very good political options but to forge their own way.  That way is to be the church.

In general, people sometimes ask me how I think Christians should be politically involved, since I obviously wouldn’t allow for Christians to approve of nationalistic violence, or for Christians to lie about their convictions to get into office (John F. Kennedy should have been denied communion for his “politics and religion” speech), which seems to leave very few options.  This is true, but it doesn’t eliminate Christians from public life altogether.

I’m no expert on politics, but when I think about Christian involvement, I always remember the little town of 6,000 I grew up in.  Valley Center, KS was a mess of uncontrolled intersections.  Some Christian should have got himself elected to the city counsel and ordered about 250 yield signs.  That’s change we can believe in.  Speaking of healthcare, the 16% of the GDP we spend on crisis-care medicine does very little to extend our length of life.  The things that do the most to extend life expentancy are windows and aqueducture: fresh air and clean, running water.

So urban planning in general is a good area for Christians who feel called to politics.

For that matter, the church could learn a lot from the public library, which (unlike the church) has not abandoned the inner city to move to more comfortable climes.  There is no reason for Christians who want to be involved politically not to become Friends of the Public Library, or patrons of the arts in their cities.  There is no reason for them not to be elected to school boards and town councils.  But the primary political move for Christians will always be to take communion, to love their enemies, to pray and practice the Lord’s prayer.

What do you think?  Is this the political message Christians in America need to hear?  What message would you offer?  How would you modify this message for the people in your congregation?

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