Dr Matthew Jones reflects on the role of love in understanding Christian martyrs
Sometimes there is a tendency in the Christian
Church to glorify martyrdom. We very often read about how the death of a famous
martyr is somehow glorious, or that he or she suffered a glorious death. Often
this is further fueled by Hollywood blockbuster movies depicting the hero
resilient to the last, going to their fate and dying in glory.
It is very easy for us to romanticise and imagine
martyrs living and dying for the sake of the Gospel in a heroic and glorious
fashion, bravely and perhaps even effortlessly shouldering the pain and
marching on to heaven in glory.
I want to question that perception and suggest
instead that martyrdom is anything but glorious. Those who have lived and died
for their Christian faith were often people faced with agonising and unbearable
choices, choices that could lead to torture, humiliation and death, not only
for themselves but also for loved ones, families and friends. What then is so
glorious about martyrdom, what is so glorious about suffering, pain, and
violent death? If anything, martyrdom is precisely the opposite of being
Part of our difficulty in all of this is that the
world in which many of these martyrs lived and died always seems so distant, a
world where Christian attitudes, contexts and worldviews were quite different
and can seem so far removed from our experience of Christianity in the largely
comfortable context of 21st century Hong Kong.
Such distance makes it difficult to imagine what
these people were really like, their personalities, their strengths, their
weaknesses, their failings; much of this is hidden behind the mystical aura of
martyrdom as they pass into church legend, tradition and sometimes to the pages
of history books. In that process, they can be transformed into romanticised
ideals that we aspire to and admire but often at the expense of their humanity.
They can become superhuman figures whose heroism and courage is beyond most of
our experiences and whose glorious perfection makes the rest of us feel small,
unworthy, and inadequate.
What is important here is that these Christian
martyrs are as human as the rest of us, they were not superhuman, perfect
beings rushing towards martyrdom with a sense of glad acceptance or joy, they
were simply Christians living out their faith and working for the spread of the
Gospel in sometimes dangerous and unpredictable situations. They all had to
make difficult choices in the face of adversity and those choices led them on a
path to death for the sake of their faith.
In 2003, seven members of the Melanesian
Brotherhood, an indigenous Anglican religious order of young men, the largest
order in the Anglican Communion, were tortured and murdered on the island of
Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands. Members of the Brotherhood had taken a major
role in peacemaking during an armed conflict in Solomon Islands and were
instrumental in helping to limit the bloodshed, encouraging militants to
negotiate for peace and in collecting weapons given up by former combatants.
Yet, seven of them were brutally murdered by one of these militia groups in a
crime which shocked everyone who knew them. Why had these simple peace-loving
young men of God been so brutally murdered? They too are now remembered as
martyrs by the Church.
Their deaths had a profound impact on me, because I knew most of them personally, I had talked with them, laughed with them, eaten with them, prayed with them and taught some of them in the classroom. Perhaps the experience of actually knowing people who have died for their faith and in our own lifetime enables us to see the reality of martyrdom more clearly. They were, quite simply, seven brave young men with their own struggles, strengths and weaknesses, and yet they found themselves, like many other ‘martyrs’, having to make difficult decisions that led to deaths that touched and outraged a nation and beyond.
They did not ask to die or bring death upon
themselves, but were human beings simply following God’s call. The same God who
when nailed to a cross moved from death to resurrection and by doing so created
the conditions for a new life-giving and life-affirming power to flow. A power
that flows through God’s people to touch and transform ordinary human beings
who are faced with extraordinary situations.
This idea is at the heart of what I want to reflect
on, namely that instead of romanticising the great and glorious death of the
martyr, we should instead reflect on the fact that martyrdom is the result of
Christian faith and Christian love in action. It is the result of God’s call to
love and of the consequences of following that call, by being a Christian in
both word and action in difficult and dangerous situations and contexts. It is
the call to discipleship and ultimately the cost of that discipleship. It is
daring to believe and to love as did Christ, it is taking risks, it is making
oneself vulnerable, it is the opening up of oneself to the other and for the
sake of the Gospel.
The two most important commandments that God gives us are to love God and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. But what kind of love is this? It is a dangerous love, a love that pushes the boundaries and moves us out of our comfort zones into the unknown. It is a love which compels us to go beyond the boundaries of our families, our friends, our tribes, our clans, our social clubs, our cultures, to a love for all humanity, regardless of race, colour, social location, status, belief or creed. It is a love that redefines the concept of neighbour, to include all peoples including our enemies as beautifully demonstrated by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews were enemies and hated one another, yet it is the Samaritan who stops to help the man in need, a Jew – his enemy – but in the context of Christian love, his neighbour.
It is this kind of love that has inspired many
missionaries both foreign and indigenous to follow God’s call to distant lands
and places, to people of different languages and cultures and to move often
beyond their own luxuries, privileges and comfort zones to the unknown. To dare
to preach the Gospel with a burning desire to share God’s love with all people.
While there is much that can be said about complex missionary attitudes and
reasons for conversion to Christianity, one reason at least, was that Christ
offers a new way of living and loving, one that is inclusive and opens up a new
possibility of living and being. It offers a new sense of hope for
But to live and love in this way involves risks, it
involves uncertainty, it involves vulnerability, it involves opening up oneself
in the risk of relationship, and it also involves conflict. Conflict in the
sense that to love one’s neighbour in the radical sense that Jesus taught and
did himself, opens up the possibility for confrontation. Jesus made many
enemies and found himself in conflict with the religious leaders and
establishment of his day, and ended up being crucified because of it.
All of this begs the question that perhaps shakes
our Christian faith to its very foundations, and it is the question why? We
talk of God’s glorious power who through the resurrection has rescued all from
the powers of darkness, but why do God’s people still die? Why are they still
tortured and murdered? We talk of God’s peace and love for the world, but why
do we still see acts of violence against God and God’s followers? We talk of
God being an everlasting rock but why does God seem to allow his people to slip
from his grasp and drown in the sea of violence below? Why are the cries of
those who have suffered for their faith seemingly met with God’s crushing
silence? Perhaps the key to some sort of an answer can be found in the
In 2002, the author Charles Montgomery came to
Melanesia to research for his new book. While in Solomon Islands he met with
members of the Melanesian Brotherhood and accompanied a group of Brothers on a
mission to rescue a young boy held captive by one of the militant gangs east of
the capital Honiara. The Brothers tried hard to convince the gang to let him go
and to reconcile with the boy’s family but it was proving very difficult to
convince them. Then one of the brothers stepped forward and Montgomery records
what happened next:
And then Brother Francis stepped forward. He wore a
shy half smile. He pulled off his wraparound sunglasses. He did not look at
Johnson or at the militants. He gazed at the trampled earth as though looking
right through it, then towards the deep green folds of the highlands, then up
at the sky, and then bowed his head. The militants seemed transfixed by his
movements, like charmed snakes. The bickering trailed off. Brother Francis
spoke softly, and his voice was like a breeze blowing through the yard,
rustling through the green grass, easing the weight of the humid afternoon. I
could barely hear him. At first I thought he was reasoning with the militants.
But his murmurs were too melodic for that. I realized he was praying when I
noticed all the other bowed heads. The militants unclenched their fists. Their
leader removed his aviator glasses. An immense calm settled on them all. Within
minutes, the problem was settled.
What is remarkable about this story is that the
militants were compelled to respond to the humility and quiet prayer of Brother
Francis and as a result all anger and aggression was dispelled, to be replaced
by calm and eventual reconciliation between wounded parties. How was this
possible? What did those militants see in Brother Francis? Why did they respond
in such a way?
It is in this situation that we see the power of
God at work in Brother Francis through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Those
around him are transformed and compelled to respond to his quiet humility and
softly spoken prayer. A situation of violence and danger is transformed by
God’s presence working through the prayers of Brother Francis not in a dramatic
display of power from on high, but through the power of a softly spoken prayer.
Yet, just one year after the story of Brother
Francis and his prayer, he was dead, tortured and murdered with the other six
brothers on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. How could God allow these murders
to take place? Has God failed his people? In their moment of need, were these
brothers met only with God’s crushing silence?
At the heart of the Christian message is the story of love, it is a story which compels and demands that we love God and that we love others. But this is not an easy story, the call to love demands that we love those who we do not like, those who may even hate us, spit on us and ultimately, like in the case of so many Christian martyrs, may even kill us. But this is the love that Christ demonstrated on the cross, a love which transformed a situation of despair and loss into love and hope for the future in the resurrection. But it is also a cross that is not frozen in the past, but is rather a present and painful reality, a reality that many Christians have encountered face to face. The words of Jesus, to take up your cross and follow me, become real in the lives of so many Christian martyrs.
And yet the seven Brothers may have been murdered,
they may have been crucified as was Christ by the powers of darkness, but the
impact of those murders transformed the nation of Solomon Islands wracked by
conflict into one embracing a peace and hope for a better future in the light
of the resurrection. Just as the cross leads to resurrection, death for the
martyrs leads to life, life attested to in the faith of the many Christians
holding on to their hope in the resurrected Christ. The deaths of the martyrs
have not been in vain.
How then does all of this relate to our lives in Hong Kong? As Christians we are called to love wherever we are, to love God and to love our neighbours. But it is a love which compels us to take risks, to push the boundaries in our own situations and contexts – to dare to love the ‘other’ – the enemy, the unlovable, the forgotten, the outcast. It is to take the risk of relationship, to become vulnerable in our own relationships, to open ourselves to others. Many martyrs have dared to believe and love in this way and they like us are not superhuman beings with an aura of perfection, but human as we are, with the same strengths, weaknesses, limitations and frustrations as the rest of us. Daring to believe and daring to love then, is something that we, like the martyrs, are called to do in whatever situation we find ourselves in. The heart of Christian faith is love – it cannot be avoided – in order to be Christian, we must love.
:: Dr Matthew Jones will be teaching Introduction to Christian Theology (THL111) and God and Humanity (THL245) for the BTh programme next semester.
further reading on this incident please see: Carter, Richard Anthony, In
Search of the Lost: The death and life of seven peacemakers of the Melanesian
Brotherhood ( Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006).
Carter, Richard Anthony, and Jude Alfred, Lessons
Learnt from Indigenous Methods of Peacemaking with Particular Reference to the
Role of the Melanesian Brotherhood and the Religious Communities, Pacific
Journal of Theology 33, 2 (2005): 69-81.
 Charles Montgomery, The Last Heathen:
Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia (Vancouver: Douglas &
McIntyre, 2004), 268.