Martyrs and Me (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jonathan Wade
September – December, 2005

When we think of embodied sacrifice or when we imagine great examples of faith, our minds tend to turn toward those who lay down their lives for a cause. We think primarily of Jesus, who gave up his body to save our souls. We think of Stephen, one of the first deacons, who was stoned for his preaching. We might even look to the early leaders of the church and note that tradition has most of them dying for their faith. According to tradition Matthew was impaled, Mark was beaten to death, Luke was hung, and Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew and Peter were all crucified. Other early Christians were thrown to lions, impaled on poles, doused in oil and set on fire as living torches. Martyrdom is, perhaps, one of the greatest testimonies to belief. I’ve been encouraged and challenged by the lives of two modern martyrs: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most everyone in the United States has at least a passing knowledge of who Dr. King was, but fewer are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his early writings, Bonhoeffer concerned himself with the question of what authentic Christianity would be like in a modern world. He considered himself a pacifist and believed that all war could be made to cease – that the lion could lay down with the lamb. He had great hopes for a new age in Europe of devotion to peace and devotion to Christ. We’ll never know how far Bonhoeffer might have taken this vision. We will never know this because just as he was just beginning to hit his stride in his career as a pastor and as a theologian, the Nazis came to power in Germany, and the world as he knew it, turned on its head.

Soon after Hitler’s ascension, his administration worked to consolidate his hold on the minds and hearts of the people of Germany. For example, the main body of the
German Lutheran Church was adopted by law into the Nazi propaganda machine. Preachers were forced to preach the party line, and people who disagreed with the direction of the administration in Berlin were snubbed and reported by church leaders. It didn’t take long for these churches to begin reporting and expelling large numbers of converted Jewish Christians, many of whom had never considered themselves to be Jewish.

A significant but still small group of pastors dissented from the main group and led their flocks away from the official church. Bonhoeffer joined this group, and, for a while, was a leader in it, but the dissenting church was soon silenced in Germany and most of its members and leaders were either jailed or conscripted into the army.

It was during this time that Bonhoeffer was asked to join an underground resistance movement that was attempting to end the war by taking control of the German government away from the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was used as an envoy to the governments of the Allied Powers because of his contacts in the international church. None of Bonhoeffer’s efforts were very successful. His most notable achievements during this period of time had very little to do with a plot to assassinate Hitler. During this period, he helped to arrange for fourteen Jewish Germans to escape to Switzerland (an act which led ultimately to his imprisonment and eventual execution). He also spent a great deal of time writing the rough draft of his book on Christian ethics. In Ethics Bonhoeffer works to justify his small role in an assassination plot by putting it into the larger context of Christian action. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer decided that the Christian is compelled to act against tyranny in whatever way possible. To not act, according to Bonhoeffer, is the same as tacitly agreeing with the injustice. So one must make the choice, to oppose injustice or to support injustice. There is no neutral stance. Bonhoeffer also realized that our actions must be tempered and motivated by love as a remedy to acting out of hatred and for revenge. Most importantly we must realize that whatever we do in our quest for justice – whatever our actions – we have a very good chance of failure or, even more commonly, of being wrong. Because of our potential for fouling even the best intended efforts, we must rely upon the Grace of God to perfect us in our imperfect works. But we cannot allow the injustice to be unopposed simply because we might fail to get it right. We act in faith and love, we cannot stand aside.

Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned and executed. His death was, ultimately, as empty as that of most of the victims of the National Socialists. I think it is Bonhoeffer’s failure to do anything radically significant that makes me identify so with him. In fact, some of his most touching bits of writing are in his letters and journal entries written after he had been captured and before he was put to death. There is no consistent theology in these very human bits, but there is an element of seeking. One of his most powerful works may well be the morally ambiguous poem, “Who am I?” It speaks volumes about the fact that our identities are not found in our dogma, our successes, or our talents, but instead in the hand of a loving and gracious God.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is unquestionably the most well-known figure in the civil rights movement. His erudition and ability to speak and write in inspiring and prophetic ways still inspires us today. Every time I hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, every time I read “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I get a small glimpse of the power of God’s justice channeled through a man. And King was a man – a man with hopes, dreams and a calling – and a man with fears and sins. He was human, but chosen for a purpose and courageous enough to take up the standard of justice and hope and to challenge our society to become better than its basest instincts – to rise to be what God desired – a people who love justice, who act in love, and who dwell in mercy. King, like Bonhoeffer, had no patience for those who insisted on passive patience with injustice.

King continued to fight against injustice until the day that he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. His justification for disobeying the law was that one must be subject to the authorities, but that, when the authorities have made a law that is in direct conflict with the laws of God, one must disobey the unjust law and stand against it so that they authorities of this world will be encouraged to amend their wickedness, change unjust laws to just ones, and bring the Kingdom of God one step closer to this fallen world.

King, according to his own account, did not really want to become the leader of the civil rights movement. One night, early in his time as the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, he sat at his kitchen table and considered giving it all up. But as he prayed for courage, he later recounted, he felt that the spirit of God came to him and told him to “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for Truth. And lo I will be with you , even until the end of the world.” It was in the context of Christ’s promise to be with him and to dwell in him that Dr. King found the strength to take up his cross every day.

It should be noted that neither Bonhoeffer nor King knew for certain that he was going to die. Both seemed to have hopes that their lives would continue into old age. It was their willingness to take up their cross. Their willingness to die if needed for the cause that makes them admirable. The death itself is just a part of the discipleship. Dr. King says it better than I ever could: “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way that only comes through suffering.”

All of that is very well and good, but it is also somewhat depressing to examine the lives and deaths of true and valid martyrs and then to look at my own life. I imagine that I’ve taken up my cross as best I can, but I feel like one of those fellows who dresses up like Jesus and drags a cross connected to a pair of wheels through a suburban landscape. I feel like I’m doing something, but I don’t seem to be doing much. Dr. King knew that his life was in danger all of the time. Stephen (the deacon) saw the anger in the eyes of his increasingly agitated audience, Paul sat in a prison cell knowing that the end could come at any moment. At least Bonhoeffer while writing portions of his book knew that it all might fall apart. I…. well, I… hmmm. I’m in danger of getting angry at a coworker? Of lying? Of lusting or being greedy? Of cutting someone off or speeding? Of raising my voice to my children? Of being selfish or lazy? My cross seems a little trivial next to these big guns of martyrdom, and that makes me sad.

Martin Luther King, Jr.But what am I sad about? Well, part of me, I’m convinced would like to be a martyr. It would be so clear-cut for an evil doer to come up to me, put a gun to my head and say, “Deny Jesus or die!” I like to imagine that I’d stand tall and refuse and then, after being killed, I’d be ushered into heaven, and all would be well. There would be no more tears, no more suffering, no more sweat, no more stomach aches, no more worrying about paying the bills, no more anything. I’d be flying away to glory. So really, my sadness about all this is really more jealousy. My secret prayer isn’t MLK’s prayer for God to give courage. It isn’t Jesus’s prayer to take the cup away. Instead my secret prayer, if I dared to utter it, would be something like: “Dearest Lord. I’d like to be as important as one of the major characters in the Bible. I’d like for you to make me a glorious part of your work on the earth and then to take me to Heaven where I can live in everlasting bliss.” Thus, unlike Bonhoeffer’s ethics of action in love or King’s desire for justice or the early martyrs vision of the necessity of proclaiming the good news in spite of all opposition, my desire for martyrdom is, in truth, a combination of two selfish desires: the desire for significance and the desire for happiness.

So what is a common person caught in America in the first sliver of the 21st century to do? Is there a sort of martyrdom that we should seek? Is there a way to take up the cross and follow Jesus even today? Is it enough to simply go to church whenever the building is open, to contribute a tenth of my earnings, to be a generally nice fellow, to not cheat others, to not litter, to just do the best I can and be willing to die if it comes up?

One of the most profound experiences that I’ve had in the last year has been a return to gardening. I’ve always liked plants, but we rarely lived anywhere where I could actually get them to grow very well. Since we’ve moved to North Carolina, I’ve been able to be a part of planting a rather significant garden. Seeing large numbers of vegetables come from one very small seed makes me appreciate Jesus’ parables all the more. The Kingdom of God, to paraphrase, starts small, but by His Grace and through His power it expands in ways that are amazing and unexpected.

I think this little seed is the answer to my strange desire for the significance of martyrdom. Ultimately it does not matter if I do something “great.” It only matters that I go into the ground and die. That I am buried with Jesus and raised to a new life. That the life I live I no longer live in the flesh but live by the Grace of God. It matters then not that I die as a martyr but that I live as the dead. That I act as His agent, as His property, for His purposes.

Luke’s version of the “take up your cross” passage reads a bit differently from the other gospels. He says “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23 NIV). It is the “daily” that caught my attention. Perhaps this is the key to living a Christian life as opposed to dying a Christian death, because, to be frank, most of us will not be called to actually die in one moment for the cause of Christ. God doesn’t plan for all of us to be the “big names.” There was only one Moses, one David, and one Abraham. There were some who were only supporting characters and some who were mere “extras.” But even the “little” people are an important part of the whole.

In the third part of Peter Jackson’s movie version of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the people of one country are summoning another to come to their defense. They do this by lighting a huge signal fire on the top of the mountain. This signal fire is seen by another station miles away on another peak. At the second station, another huge bonfire is lit, which is, in turn, seen by a third station many miles away. This continues until an incredible distance is crossed and the message is delivered. In that one instance, we see an illustration of the part that most of us will play in the ongoing story of God. We are not the great heroes. We are the wood-stackers. Our efforts keep the logs stacked and dry for hundreds of years so that the signal fire can be lit – so that the message can be sent. Our little acts of faithfulness, our gradual giving of our lives for the cause in the small, gentle, and seemingly unimportant ways, are a part of God’s great design.

The stories of King and of Bonhoeffer are inspiring and challenging. But we shouldn’t wait for the great doom or the huge challenge before we take up our cross. We should take up our cross in the small moments. We should live as emissaries of the light, we should open ourselves to the mandate of the cross and believe that God will make his way. We cannot sit on the side. We will act in love. We will change our lives. We will be kingdom people wrapped in jars of clay. We will give up ourselves and take on the everlasting. And in doing all this, we will let Love be en-fleshed in our weakness; We will be conduits of the power of good in a fallen world; We will be God’s hands to a world full of sadness, we will be the seeds planted and watered by the grace of God, and it will be good.New Wineskins

Resources

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 16:23-25 (NIV)

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

“Once more it might well turn out that the blood of the martyr will be the seed of the tabernacle of freedom.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.”


Who am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated from the German by Jonathan Wade

Who am I?

They often tell me
I would step from my cell
calmly and cheerfully and firmly
like a squire from his country home.

Who am I?

They often tell me that
I would speak with my jailers
freely and friendly and clearly
as if I were in charge.

Who am I?
They also tell me
I pushed away the days of the misfortune
With good will, smiling and proud
as someone accustomed to winning.

Am I really all that others think I am?
Or am I what I know myself to be?
Restless, longing, shook-sick,
Like a bird in a cage,
struggling for the breath of life,
grasping my throat,
Hungering for colors, for flowers,
For the voices of birds.

Thirsting for kind words, for company,
Shaking in anger over arbitrariness and petty humilations,
Made sick from waiting for great happenings,
Full of doubts and fearing for friends endlessly far away,
Tired and too empty for praying, for thinking, for making things,
Exhausted and ready to say goodbye to it all.

Who am I? This one, or that one?
Am I this today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at the same time?
An actor or a pitiful weakling?
Or, am I that which I know still lives inside me>
Am I an army turning in disorder and fleeing
Although the victory is won?

Who am I?

The lonely questions mock me.

Whoever I am, you know me, Oh Lord. I am yours.


The Prayer for Taking up My Cross: Little Deaths for His Greater Glory

Today, Lord, let me fight against consumerism and materialism. Help me to deny the pleasures that the world says that I need. Help me to drive my old clunker and not lust after the next new thing. Help me to avoid frivolity and to emphasize generosity. Help me to give more and take less. Destroy the power of the television idol in my life. Let me not just bear my place in life, but let me revel in contentment. Take away my selfishness, and help me to love and forgive all people, even those who I secretly think don’t deserve love and forgiveness. Forgive me for my pride and pettiness. Help me to be kind and always treat everyone as a child of God (including servers and people working at counters). Help me to cherish my children, my co-workers, and the people in my community. Take away my cynicism and lead me into the light of your love. May I be your hand of blessing, honest, humble and faithful to my commitments and to the values of your kingdom. Make me the instrument of your love whatever the circumstance. In Your Son’s name, Amen.


For Further Reading

Bonhoeffer

The Cost of Discipleship
Ethics
Letters and Papers From Prison
A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

King

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“A Long Night’s Journey Into Day,” Chapter 2, Soul Survivor, Phillip Yancey
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jonathan WadeJonathan Wade is enthusiastic about learning. He has formally studied history, English, ethics, philosophy, law, Czech, German, Greek, and aesthetics. He’s informally studied almost everything else. For several years he taught at Christian schools, and he has recently become a Fellow at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching where he helps to develop professional development programs for public school teachers. He lives in North Carolina in an old farmhouse near a railroad track and beside a creek with his wife, Jodie, his daughter, Anne Elizabeth, his son, Nathan, and Jodie’s aunt Jackie Sue. E-mail him at [wadej@ncat.org].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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