Martyrdom and trampling on Christ

Apr 7, 2015 by

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In 2012, I reached a landmark moment in my journey into the Mennonite world, the event that marks one’s transition from being a Christian who dabbles in Anabaptism to being one who identifies as an Anabaptist, that glorious and time-honored rite of initiation that welcomes one into the Mennonite fold. No, I’m not speaking of baptism, or foot washing, or my first debate with someone about the ethics of violence. I’m referring to the day I finally received my copy of the Martyrs Mirror.

I recall the first few weeks of shock and amazement as I combed through the hundreds of stories of heroic Anabaptist martyrdoms told in the Mirror and marveled at the incredible faith of these followers of Jesus. I remember reading many of the stories out loud to my wife, Alice, tears rolling down my face. If it was the ethics and theology of Anabaptism that had drawn me in, it was the stories of real men and women, dying out of faithfulness to Christ that kept me. Here, I thought, was an uncompromising faith, a faith that would follow Christ to the cross; A faith that reflected the transformed life that the Holy Spirit makes possible. I wondered to myself if I would have the same faith in the face of similar trials.

Fast forward a year; I’m reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who was deeply influential in the Confessing Church movement that opposed the Nazi government in Germany in the years before and during World War II. He was finally caught and ultimately executed in 1945, led naked into a concentration camp yard where he was then hanged for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

In The Cost of Discipleship, which was written earlier in his career before his involvement in the conspiracy, he writes:

The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus.

Reading these words I sat wondering, like many have before me, how a man with such a strong conviction about enemy love, a man who wrote so powerfully about nonviolence, could ultimately provide support for conspiracies to assassinate Adolf Hitler. What switch was flipped in his mind that permitted him to act against his moral convictions? How long did he debate his decision in his own mind before he acted? How many times did he speak with the Lord about it before he made his choice? Did he have regrets after acting . . . doubts? I reflected on Bonhoeffer’s story and thought, “Would I have acted any differently?” Given what I knew about Bonhoeffer’s great faith, I found it hard to believe that I, whose faith is comparatively small, would withstand a similar trial.

Which brings us to the present day.

Three weeks ago someone recommended I read Shusaku Endo’s book Silence. A historical fiction, Silence is set during the Japanese persecution of Christians in the period of early Jesuit missions in Japan (spoilers ahead!). It tells the story of a young Portuguese priest named Sebastião Rodrigues, sent to Japan to support the native church and to verify whether or not his former teacher and mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, has committed apostasy under duress. Rodrigues, a faithful Christian who seeks the glory of a martyr’s death, cannot believe that Ferreira would turn from the faith. He is ultimately captured and imprisoned by the Japanese and is forced to watch as the Japanese Christians he came to support are brutally killed and tortured before his eyes. He’s told that all he has to do to end their suffering is to renounce his faith by trampling on a bronze medallion with an etching of the face of Jesus on it. Ferreira, who has already committed this apostasy, attempts to convince Rodrigues to recant as he faces the horror of the decision before him. What follows are two short excerpts from this powerful scene:

For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.” Night gradually gave place to dawn. The cell that until now had been no more than a lump of black darkness began to glimmer in a tiny flicker of whitish light. “Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men.” . . .

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot on the fumie.

Faced with an impossible choice, Rodrigues is compelled by Jesus to do what is to him the unthinkable. At the point where he finds pure obedience to be a hollow and distant dream, he is met in his need by the Lord of grace who says, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born. . . . ”

Reading Silence helped me to understand the depth and complexity of our martyrs’ stories. It reminded me what it was that the men and women in Martyrs Mirror ultimately died for: True martyrs don’t die in order to remain morally innocent, they die to bear witness to the vastness of God’s mercy and grace. The deaths of their weak and broken bodies don’t testify to their greatness, they testify to their profound and desperate neediness for the resurrection hope that only Jesus can provide. This is a lesson that we can too easily forget in our justice and holiness focused Anabaptist circles.

Shusaku Endo’s fictional priest knows all too well the agony that Dietrich Bonhoeffer must have felt as he found himself caught up in the nightmare of Nazi Germany. Endo’s priest has realized the impossibility of undiluted holiness on this side of Jesus second coming. Yet, rather than seeking justification for the sin of apostasy, his character leans into the grace of Jesus and, looking deep into the face of Christ he realizes that he can trample without fear; that sin no longer defines his future. And so he puts to death the idol of self-righteousness. It is, oddly enough, still a kind of martyrdom. Not a martyrdom of the body, but of his dream of moral purity that must be put to death. His martyrdom is the martyrdom of the repentant heart, laying down and putting to death of the sinful flesh that seeks self-justification. It is the death that Paul writes about in Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. . . .”

John Piper writes about the nature of this kind of repentance, defining it in the following way:

Repentance is turning away from any and all reliance upon what I am by birth (like Jewish or Gentile) or what I have done by my own effort, and turning to the absolutely free mercy of God for the hope of salvation. . . . Repentance, therefore, is the altering of what we rely on in life, what we hope in, what we are counting on for salvation in the age to come and for help now. The repentance that leads to forgiveness of sins is turning away from what we are by birth or achieve by effort to rely wholly on mercy, God’s free and sovereign grace.

This “turning away from reliance” on all things besides God’s mercy and grace is what we must embrace if we hope to inherit the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not gained through our perfect obedience. It is gained through the recognition of our desperate need and the laying down of our selves at the feet of Christ, who has already perfectly obeyed in our place. What a glorious and liberating message this is: a Gospel that frees us from the unbearable weight of buying our own salvation and yields for us grace upon grace in Christ’s merciful arms!

Does this mean that we must lay aside our ethical commitments? No. Neither Bonhoeffer nor Endo’s priest change their view of what’s right and wrong. Both struggled deeply, with fear and anxiety, over their choices. No, it’s not our understanding of what righteousness is that must change, but rather our understanding of where our righteousness comes from: Not from a resolute faithfulness with origins in some dormant virtue of our humanity, but rather in the faithfulness of God who has given us grace, not only grace to atone for our sins through his work on the cross, but grace to meet us in our need, whether we ultimately sin or obey.

Will we submit to him in this way? Will we recognize that we continue to need his grace for faithful living? Will we trust in him when the answers are not clear and when no good choice is in sight? In a world of uncertainty, where the answers are not clear and the global church still suffers deeply, I pray that we will.

Timothy Colegrove lives and work in Boston, Mass., with his wife Alice. They serve with the Conservative Mennonite Conference as evangelists and prospective church planters. Their vision is to establish a multi-ethnic evangelical Anabaptist church in Boston committed to discipling new believers, breaking down socio-economic barriers, and gathering an eclectic community around Jesus’ table. Tim and Alice served for many years as advocates, street pastors and family to homeless youth in Harvard Square. You can learn more about their church plant on the web at

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