Recently I sat in an audience of several hundred Christian communicators and watched the feature film, Silence, by accomplished American director Martin Scorsese.
The movie was released in January, but—movie buffs that we are—my husband and I did not race out to see it in the local theatre. The subject is martyrdom.
Based on the novel by Japanese author Shiraku Endo, the movie tells the story of two Jesuit priests who leave 17th-century Europe for Japan on a mission. They are to investigate the disappearance of a priest who was their mentor and is supposed to have committed apostasy, the sin of renouncing one’s faith.
The Japanese society was hostile to Christianity, and many Japanese Christians had been submitted to gruesome torture and death. The remaining ones practiced their faith in secret fear, without the guidance and support of clergy. The newly arrived priests ministered to the needs of these secret Christians, but eventually they faced their own suffering and were forced to witness the martyrdom of their flock. Why was God silent in the face of such suffering? And should they renounce Christ if that meant saving the lives of other people?
As Christians living in a society in which freedom of religion is a right, we don’t confront the possibility that we might die for our beliefs. We expect death will come because of ill health, an accident or possibly even a crime. But do we consider a martyr’s death?
Jesus said that the way of discipleship would have a cost: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
As the early church discovered, the way of the disciple could lead to physical death. The story of Stephen in the book of Acts reminds us that, right from the beginning, Christians believed, spoke and acted in ways that sometimes brought about their death.
The English word “martyr” comes from the Greek, in which its original meaning was “witness.” As Stephen witnessed to the truth of Jesus Christ, his opponents responded with violence against him and ultimately they brought about his death.
Definitions vary as to what qualifies one to be considered a martyr. But in the broadest sense, a Christian martyr is someone whose words and life witness to God’s reign and who is killed because of that testimony.
At our baptism, each of us makes a public statement of our allegiance to Christ. Baptism calls us into a life of faithfulness that can sometimes result in suffering or death. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man [or woman], he bids him [her] come and die.”
In the 16th century, Anabaptist Maeyken Wens was deemed a heretic by the authorities. In prison and knowing that death was imminent, she wrote letters to her husband and teenage son saying farewell and urging them to be strong in the faith. In October 1573, she was burned at the stake in Antwerp.
Earlier this year, the Mennonite world learned of the death of Michael J. (M.J.) Sharp at the hands of unknown assailants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sharp and his colleagues were employed by the United Nations and were investigating human rights violations in that part of the country. While Sharp has not been called a martyr, it appears that he was killed because he was living out Christ’s way of peace and justice. He went into that turbulent country recognizing the danger but was willing to put his life on the line for a higher cause.
We think also of our present-day Anabaptist brothers and sisters in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, some of whom have been kidnapped, driven from their homes, and submitted to violence and even death. Their allegiance to Christ has had a high cost.
As Christians, we do not seek persecution or death. But the stories of witness-martyrs remind us that a life of faithfulness to Christ’s way could lead us down the path of martyrdom. In a world that is hostile to the Prince of Peace, we seek to be faithful to Christ’s call.
Are you prepared to die?