I’m always nervous about stories of travelling to your martyrdom. Partly because the question “what are you prepared to die for?” is rarely as simple as the questions suggests. There’s a rare case in which Christians are taken by their captors and asked to deny their faith in Jesus or die, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable other way of viewing it. I could think of the Egyptian Christians taken by ISIS on the beach in Libya, and shot.
In other cases there’s far more nuance about why such folk are killed. Was it simply for their faith, or had they been abusing their colonial powers or privilege or been perceived to be on the side of those who were treating people awfully?
In the first few chapters of this gripping book, “Emily” (not her real name) tells of how her husband gave her Foxe’s Book of Martyrs when they were dating and asked her whether she was willing to live and die for Jesus. But as someone who also read such a book when I was younger, I was not only encouraged by the stories, but also appalled by some of the political warfare, colonial attitudes and sectarian bigotry that led to many of the deaths, or the lack of information to prove otherwise.
Thankfully what emerged from the book was a story of genuine love for North African people who had not had a chance to hear of the name of Jesus. The questions the book raises are exemplary to get people thinking of what it would take to cross cultures and take the good news to others. The stories she tells are answers to the common objections that are raised by others on why such lifestyles are foolish. Wouldn’t going to such a place ruin your children’s lives? Isn’t it unnecessary risk? Do Muslims in North Africa deserve the good news? Do you have to be superhuman to go? And the way that she tells them had me wanting to finish the book in a day! It’s an easily read story of ordinary (but obviously gifted) humans, told with honesty and passion.
The main learning curve for me, was again in the story of martyrdom. For me in my Christian life here in Ireland, I’ve always been baffled that it’s not the “non-Christians” who have caused me most pain in life, but Christians at my side. And the more I go on, the more I think that despite such great pain, that they were genuine believers and not just “Christians” by name only who caused this misery. I’m still examining the scriptures to see whether this is to be expected and Biblically normal to expect this. But regardless, so it is with this story.
Her husband is billed as being a tremendous human being, working for an NGO and loved by all. She portrays his faults, yes, but largely has great praise for such a man. But Emily tells us of believers who (despite being some of the better discipled ones,) were so young in the faith, that when they were confronted over some patterns of sin of stealing, they turned against Stephen (her husband) and wrote articles about him on fundamentalist Islamic websites, where they’d be seen by extremists who would quite happily “deal” with him.
All this is quickly and quietly summarised in a few paragraphs on page 133 of the book, nearly in passing. She also explains that their team situation had been escalating between expats, and that because of other reasons, they didn’t defend him. She mentions that Stephen had tried to do Biblical rebuke/confrontation well, going first to the individual and then the group, but she doesn’t explain how this might have looked in a shame/honour culture, or whether they just ploughed on ahead with their usual western way of reading that passage in scripture “if a brother sins against you…”.
It was this, that set up his martyrdom. But like many cases of martyrdom, it’s a murky one. Did Stephen die for his faith in Jesus? Or did he die because he didn’t know how to pastorally handle messy cases in shame/honour culture? Why did his colleagues or team mates not defend him and prevent such things happening?
Similar questions have been raised in recent years about other martyrs, right up to the most prolific of Christian stories of people like the Jim Elliot in the Amazon. Why did they have guns on them at the time?
But ultimately, despite the grey areas and question marks over the story, I do believe it is a story where Stephen did indeed die for his faith in Christ, and that his story is one that needs to be told. Because ultimately, in the Christian narrative, Christ is not dying for those who perfectly follow him. Christ is not abandoning those even who deny him temporarily (Peter). Christ claims a weak and messy Bride as His own. And even when it may be partly our fault for the abuse that we may get, it is still abuse for the sake of Him. No one made those Islamic fundamentalists shoot him (or whoever it was). No action of Stephen’s provoked them, other than His faith in Jesus and his spreading of it.
And so I’m praying that this book would touch many hearts and lives, as it has mine, and be an example of Tertullian’s oft quoted phrase:
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
I mean, it hasn’t always been that way. The land of Augustine in north africa was a land where the church seemed to be persecuted out of existence for nearly 1500 years. And in other settings we could report the same. But in many cases, martyrdom has grown the church, and I’m praying such stories would do that, as many consider the call to die to themselves and live for Christ. Emily, in a powerful way, writes that Stephen (and her family) could deal somewhat with his death in a better way, because of the words of a missionary (james Calvert) to Fiji and the Pacific Islands long ago who went before cannibals with the good news of Jesus:
“We died before we came here.”
And if we’re dying to self each day, and living for Christ, such stories of travelling for your martyrdom will be true, regardless of whether it is a physical death you are dying or whether a spiritual death of dying to self.
Traveller I ask you, will you be a martyr in your travels? Will you die each day you live?