July/August 2010 - Vol. 41

.Lessons from Martyrs:.
On Running and Otherwise
By James Munk

During my last year of high school, I reached the pinacle of my athletic career: the period of my life when I was the best I was ever going to be at any sport. And in truth, I wasn’t half bad. However, my sport was cross country – distance running – and even a pinacle can feel pretty minor when not many people care about it. You see, in the pantheon of high school athletics, my sport was somewhat eclipsed by football – the American version. That sport is dominated by broad-shouldered Titans, muscle-bound and coordinated. I wasn’t then – nor am I now – built that way. I was skinny, a little lanky, and just coordinated enough to run the straight lines afforded by the cross country course. Nonetheless, I would often think about what it would be like to play football: to take the field under the Friday night lights and–held in awe by the entire student body – make a major play or a bone-crunching tackle. 

But in truth, I can’t now (nor could I then) imagine what I would actually do. If I were given the ball, I would likely freeze. Not paralyzed by fear, but stupefied by ignorance.  It wasn’t my sport – not my skill set. I would not have known what to do.

Red martyrdom
Recently, the Lord has been speaking to the Sword of the Spirit (and specifically to its young people) about martyrdom. “Red” martyrdom: allowing one’s blood to be spilled for the gospel.

When I think about this, my personal response is somewhat conflicted. On the one hand I find such an invitation stirs a solemn excitement: the opportunity to lay down one’s life for the Lord, to give what is most precious for what is beyond price. But I find this zeal muted by another sentiment – not primarily fear; rather, incomprehension.

Christians in the past have faced torture, burnings, beatings, crucifixions, and imprisonment – suffering difficult to imagine – but I’ve grown up in a nation that values religious freedom where my beliefs are legally protected.  And in my mind, martyrdom doesn’t seem like an actual possibility.  As such, when I hear about Christians persecuted for their faith – in history or today in other parts of the world – I’m hard pressed to imagine a plausible scenario with me in it.  It’s football, and I’m a runner.

So what then? I don’t believe lack of familiarity (or imagination) exempts one from the Lord’s call.  If the Lord is calling for martyrs, he will have them. What then should I expect? Axes, lions, concentration camps and the rack? Martyrdom in a vehicle fundamentally alien to any of my experiences? Perhaps –and if so, the Lord will give grace to meet that challenge. But it is my suspicion that my generation’s contribution – our martyrdom – will be by an agent chillingly familiar. I don’t know exactly what it will be, but I feel that it will be something we’ll know, a thing we will see coming.

I believe this for two reasons. First, a conviction that it is the Lord’s plan that we find ourselves in this era of human history, not any other. He made us for something; he made our communities for something; and for a certain time. We are to build Christian community in the modernized world, a civilization unlike any that has existed before; and we are to meet its unique challenges. While our society may not have lions to which we may be fed, it is certainly not without its killers. Ours is new arena: a different sport – perhaps the one for which we have been conditioned. By living today, we may be the best ones currently suited to die. 

The quintessential act of courage
The second reason is that martyrdom is the quintessential act of courage. Choosing for the Lord when it costs your life is to give a spiritual response when doing so means silencing the flesh; a flesh that knows it will perish if quieted. It is, as John Wayne said, “being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” But this begs the question: of what is the courageous afraid – why is his flesh in rebellion? Is it the result of something beyond his comprehension? I don’t think so. Rather, it because he comprehends the predicament that he fears, and it is precisely because he knows the possible outcomes that he has need of courage. The courageous man does not hedge his bets – win or lose, he is “all in”; the ignorant man who does not know he is risking all is not to be considered brave. Courage is not simply a bold response in the face of the undefined. It is steadfastness when definite hardship promises an uncertain outcome. 

If martyrdom in my generation is to be courageous, it must be of the type we can comprehend: not an element of the Christian past that is vague in our understanding, but a very real, very possible outcome for our actions.  It will be an instance where courage proves its necessity, because we’ll know we are in danger. We’ll know we need it.

For these reasons, I think we’ll find martyrdom to be more familiar than we might like.  In fact, forms of it may already be apparent. And here again courage is paramount: the things we know to be dangerous, we also know to avoid. We can assume that a Roman Christian walking by the Colosseum knew well what sport was done inside.  Perhaps this knowledge led some believers to choose a different path.

Dare I turn this accusation on myself? Jesus told us that the world would hate us; we can be sure that it reserves special dangers for Christians – Christians in any time and any society. 

Do I try to avoid these dangers? Have I looked for martyrdom in a form I won’t recognize so that I might distract myself from the one I do know? Thinking back to cross country, courage was essential to run the race – but not because I didn’t know what the race would be like – rather, because I knew exactly, and knew how I must respond.

A sport we know how to play
I believe that the Lord is inviting some of us to receive the crown of martyrdom. It is a concept difficult to grasp – hard to play out in the mind. But I take some comfort in the probability that we’ll know it when we see it. While it will not be any less difficult,  ignorance will not keep us from responding – it will be a sport we know how to play.

May the Lord grant us the courage to respond to his invitation, and let us not run from the dangers we already see. Instead, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

Happy running. 

[James Munk graduated from the University of Michigan School of Architectural Design in May, 2007. He is a mission director for Kairos North America and a member of the Work of Christ Community in Lansing, Michigan.]

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