By Brian Lee
Are you a Christian?
What would you say if a man holding a gun to your head asked this question?
According to reports (and here), the recent mass shooter in Oregon—nameless, for our purposes—asked many of his victims about their faith before he pulled the trigger. Professing Christianity earned one a mocking retort, and a bullet to the head:
“[He started] asking people one by one what their religion was. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he would ask them, and if you’re a Christian, stand up. And they would stand up and he said, ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you are going to see God in just about one second.’ And then he shot and killed them.”
Those who didn’t acknowledge faith in Christ, according to another witness, would receive a non-lethal shot in the leg, or elsewhere.
Forget about the killer for now. Let’s think about the victims. Let’s try to remember them, and honor them, by getting inside their heads for a moment.
After witnessing a few of your colleagues getting gunned down for their faith, what would you say? People are screaming, blood is flowing. Your ears are ringing and the scent of gunpowder is in the air.
Are you a Christian?
I don’t honestly know what I’d do. We all like to think of ourselves as courageous, probably more courageous than we really are. But I do know that I’d think of my wife, my daughter. My mom and dad. I would think, in that moment of confusion, of them hearing the news of my death. Of their pain.
The pragmatic calculation is to deny Christ. To take a shot in the kneecap, a ride to the hospital, and return home to the embrace of your family. To live to provide and care for them all the remaining days of your earthly life.
But Christianity isn’t pragmatic. It is a word of folly. The Lord of glory, the creator of the universe, offered himself on a cross so others may live. Not live the American dream, but live as God intended us to, forever, in his presence, in glory.
What Martyrdom Means
Are you a martyr if you die at the hands of a homicidal madman at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon? Of course.
If you profess Christ as your highest good, your only hope, your only comfort, while staring down the barrel of a gun, you are a martyr.
If you profess Christ as your highest good, your only hope, your only comfort, while staring down the barrel of a gun, you are a martyr. You have born witness to the character of the Christian faith, to the truth of the resurrection of the body, and to your risen Lord. You have acknowledged that the sufferings of the present time are not worth being compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us. You have testified that it is better to be absent from the body, for a short time, if you are present with Christ.
How bizarre. Something higher than bodily pleasure? A greater good than Me, Here, Now.
Most of us don’t know our Bibles, so probably don’t know that in the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told his followers that acknowledging him before men could lead to their death: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do… I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God… And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
For most of the history of the Christian church, this has been true. There have been those who acknowledged Christ, aided by the Holy Spirit, knowing that it would cost them their lives.
Pretty early on, a cult grew up around those believers who professed their faith by laying down their lives. One can go too far in pursuing the death of a martyr, in denying that a long and ordinary life of service is somehow less noble than a life cut short for one’s faith. But in sacrificing their lives, martyrs bear an undeniable likeness to their Lord, and communicate profoundly the message of the cross.
Martyrs testify that Christianity isn’t about good behavior, shiny cars, or voting for the GOP.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for witness. With their blood martyrs have born witness to the heavenly character of the Christian faith. Martyrs testify that Christianity isn’t about good behavior, shiny cars, or voting for the GOP. It’s not a public policy. It’s not about being a moral majority, or a moral minority, or not buying booze on Sunday. It’s not even about abortion or tax deductions or the Supreme Court.
A martyr would rather die than deny Christ, even as an empty gesture to a madman. In this act, martyrdom testifies to the core Christian truth: Sin and death are such stubborn enemies, such vicious foes, that they can only be conquered by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Only by heaven itself breaking into our broken world on a sunny Sunday morning can we truly live.
We have seen headless bodies on a Libyan beach. We have seen a man put in a cage and set on fire. And now we hear of a seemingly random massacre with seemingly targeted victims. Targeted victims, who chose to be targets. They owned the bull’s eye.
Don’t look away. Martyrdom is real. It is here, always with us. You may choose to believe, or disbelieve, but the faith of martyrs is real, their conviction true. They have born witness.
What would you do? Are you a Christian? Are you?
Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington DC.