We live in an age of martyrdom

Jun 6, 2016 by

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Thousands of Christians have been slaughtered by Boko Haram in Nigeria in recent years, and most of the Western church barely seems to notice. Lord, when did we see you homeless, or hungry, or kneeling in the killing fields?

Seen here from inside the Old City of Jerusalem, St. Stephen’s Gate (also called Lion’s Gate) is where Christians remember the stoning of Stephen. — J. Nelson Kraybill

Seen here from inside the Old City of Jerusalem, St. Stephen’s Gate (also called Lion’s Gate) is where Christians remember the stoning of Stephen. — J. Nelson Kraybill

When in Jerusalem, I pause at St. Stephen’s Gate to remember martyrs of the ancient and modern church.

We sometimes think of martyrdom as an early church phenomenon or an unfortunate byproduct of the Reformation. But multiple researchers conclude that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th and 21st centuries than in all previous centuries combined. We live in an age of martyrdom.

Would I be as courageous as Stephen was when they led him out through a gate of Jerusalem to die (Acts 6-7)?

This man was fearless, “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” a Greek who accepted the Jewish messiah. Chosen by Jerusalem Christians to administer the church’s food program, Stephen was “full of grace” and “did great wonders and signs.” Falsely accused of blasphemy, he stood trial for his life before the Sanhedrin, religious council of the Jewish nation.

No defense attorney would recommend what Stephen did: He delivered a scathing sermon (Acts 7:2-53) charging the Sanhedrin and the Jewish nation with rebellion against God like the worst of their Old Testament ancestors. While the Sanhedrin “ground their teeth” with rage, the Holy Spirit filled Stephen, and he was fortified with a vision of Jesus.

I feel a twinge of conscience with what happened next. A young man named Saul stood outside the gate of Jerusalem and watched as they stoned Stephen to death. I am biblically trained like the Pharisee Saul, also desire to do what is right — and I watch as martyrs die.

Saul was not throwing stones — at least not yet. He simply guarded coats of the executioners and did nothing.

But Saul, quietly complicit in Stephen’s killing, would become the greatest ambassador for the gospel in the Roman world. Was he impressed by the grace of Stephen, who — despite his hellfire sermon before the Sanhe­drin — faced his killers and said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)? Stephen modeled forgiveness and love of enemies.

Christians in Nigeria have done the same. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is a Christian named Hon Yakubu Dogara who is from the region of Nigeria suffering the worst violence. He recently said that for the nation to heal, Christians would need to forgive those who carried out the “massive destruction that the church and others suffered at the hands of Boko Haram.”

Then he added, “Where else lies the footstep of the Savior except in forgiving?”

Saul — who vigorously persecuted the church for a season — met his Lord on the road to Damascus. The Christian community graciously received and forgave the former persecutor. Given a new name, Paul eventually faced his own martyrdom for Christ in Rome.

The transformation of Saul to Paul reminds me never to write off anybody as beyond redemption, no matter how reprehensible their deeds or beliefs. God’s power to redeem is beyond measure.

J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.

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