June 28, 2020
O.K. Let me say right from the beginning that I didn’t want to preach about martyrs. I read this story and prayed about this story. I dug around in this story and turned it different ways to look at it in different lights trying to find something—anything—to grab onto besides the martyrdom of Stephen.
I know that as a Mennonite pastor I should be glad for this chance to remind you that, according to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, “believers are baptized into Christ and his body by the Spirit, water, and blood.” With “the blood” being suffering and even martyrdom.
As an Anabaptist, I should relish this opportunity to pull out my copy of The Bloody Theater or Martyr’s Mirror of the Defenseless Christians. I should jump on this opportunity to regale you with tales of Felix Manz and Dirk Willems and Anneken Heyndricks.
As someone concerned with suffering in the world, I should seize this opportunity to tell you that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th and 21st Centuries than in all other centuries combined.
So why am I not excited about this sermon? What is my reluctance to embrace this very obvious topic of martyrdom?
I felt a bit vindicated on Thursday evening when I listened to the Mennonite Church USA webinar on race, church, and change. Tobin Miller Shearer, a long-time anti-racism trainer and consultant, identified five things that hinder white Mennonites in our anti-racism work. The first of those five? Our tradition of martyrdom.
Because white Mennonites hold on to an identity of being part of a persecuted minority, they often have a hard time acknowledging their white privilege. Mennonites have viewed themselves as persecuted for so long, it can be hard to switch that mindset and understand how we, as white Mennonites, wield power and participate in systems of oppression.
This is definitely part of my reluctance to hold up the example of Stephen’s martyrdom. Because too often today, the people who claim martyr status are, in fact, in very privileged positions.
I know that many Christians have been killed by Boko Haram, an Islamic sect, in Nigeria. And it’s awful. And when I hear US Christians reference that, it often feels like a way of saying, “See, Christianity in the US is threatened and we need to protect ourselves from Muslims.”
And sometimes, when US Christians talk about martyrdom, they aren’t even referring to people who are actually persecuted and killed for their faith. They are talking about not being allowed to offer Christian prayers during public school assemblies or having to bake a cake for a gay wedding or about Covid-19 related restrictions on worship gatherings. Even if you disagree with these particular government regulations, baking a cake is a far cry from being burned at the stake.
So a focus on martyrdom can be dangerous, because when we understand ourselves as the persecuted and oppressed, we are not in a position to acknowledge the power we have and the ways we might be participating in the oppression of others.
Glorifying martyrs—like Stephen, and even Jesus—also becomes problematic when these examples are used to encourage people to accept abuse or to give of themselves in unhealthy ways. Martyrdom was held up as an ideal for slaves on the plantation. And for soldiers sent into battle. And for women abused by their partners.
The practice of martyrdom is most often suggested for people who are already oppressed. It is not often suggested as a model for people in power. Few preachers told the slave owners that they should sacrifice their personal financial stability and free their slaves. Or that the government has to give up its preferred way of doing business and quit sending—mostly poor—young people to war. The rich and powerful aren’t asked to be martyrs.
So, yeah, I really didn’t want to talk about martyrdom today. But here it is, in the book of Acts: this story of Stephen, generally considered to be the first Christian martyr—and the third person written about in the Martyrs Mirror after Jesus and John the Baptist. It’s hard to skirt around it. So I’ve faced it. And thought about it. And wondered: What is martyrdom really about, from a biblical perspective?
Based on this story of Stephen, it doesn’t seem that martyrdom is about blaming people of other faiths—Stephen was part of the same faith tradition as the people who stoned him.
And it doesn’t seem that martyrdom is about playing the victim even though we actually have power—Stephen claims his power to the very end by relating his vision of Jesus and praying forgiveness for his murderers.
And it doesn’t seem that the concept of martyrdom is given to us in order to uphold the status quo—the early Church brought together people of various ethnicities and genders and social status in new and exciting ways.
It doesn’t seem that biblical martyrdom is about any of those things that bother me so much about the way the stories of martyrs are used today.
So if it’s not about those things, what is it about? What value do the stories of martyrs have for us as Christians in the United States today?
There are lots of ways to answer this question. Here are three I’ve been thinking about:
First, martyrdom is a call to speak truth. No matter what. We didn’t hear all of Stephen’s speech in our reading this morning. It’s actually the longest speech in Acts. Here’s the part that we did hear:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
Not surprisingly, when the crowd “heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.”
We can understand why they are mad. Stephen doesn’t pull any punches. He says exactly what he thinks. He speaks the truth as best as he knows how without worrying about who he might make angry.
One positive, biblical, tradition of martyrdom is this willingness to speak truth and act upon it regardless of the potential danger. And we could make a long list of people who lived this way—some who were, in fact, killed for their truth-telling, and others who made other sacrifices: we could talk about all the people in the Martyrs Mirror, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Rachel Corrie . . . and so many others who have refused to be silenced and intimidated. They lived in the tradition of the martyrs.
Second, and a bit more sobering, is a comment I’ve been considering from biblical scholar Matt Skinner who wrote that the story of Stephen teaches us that “Jesus may be Lord, but he will still be resisted. His resurrection does not stop the human race–including religious people–from spilling blood and resisting the prophetic remonstrations of God’s spokespeople.”
The fact of martyrdom means that there is evil in this world. That while God’s life ultimately prevails, things on this earth don’t always reflect that reality. This teaching, while difficult, is essential for us to hold on to—especially in a cultural context where winning is so highly valued. We are conditioned to believe that the person who wins must be the person who was right. And martyrdom is a reminder that this is simply not the case. The winners are not always the ones doing the will of God. And those of us seeking to do God’s will won’t always win.
Finally, this story of Stephen’s martyrdom offers us encouragement and hope. Before Stephen dies he has a vision of God with Jesus. And, like Jesus, Stephen commends his spirit to God.
Death is frightening, and unknown . . . and inevitable. Whether through accident or violence or disease or just living out our time, we will all face death. And we don’t know, we can’t know, exactly what that means until we experience it.
But based on this story of Stephen’s martyrdom—and the testimony of other parts of scripture—I find assurance that whatever death is, God is there with us and for us. While death is a grief and a loss, it is not necessarily a tragedy. While the unknown is frightening, our God, who knows us intimately, is there for us which means we can have peace even though we don’t know exactly what will happen.
Even after all of this processing, I’m still not planning to keep Martyrs Mirror on my nightstand as bedtime reading. But I am thinking more about the positive aspects of martyrdom. I appreciate the examples—in the Bible and beyond—of courageous truth-tellers. I am grateful to be part of a tradition that is honest about the resistance we face in seeking to live the way of Jesus in this world. And, for myself and for those I love who have already died, I am grateful for the witness and promise of God’s eternal presence. Now and forever.