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Desperation: Reflections on Martyrs

I have been reading the small, 200 pages of The Sweetest Song for months. The author, Richard Wurmbrand, frames stories of martyrdom with lines from Song of Solomon. The love, he argues, between Christ and His church is best exemplified by the love of martyrs, dying for their faith. I have been feeling that I have little in common with these brothers and sisters aside from a common fundamental belief. They lived and died before I was born, and I cannot relate to their strength and sacrifice. They tell prison guards that Christ loves them. They see angels in the torture chambers. They go to their deaths singing praises.

Wurmbrand stresses that these stories of martyrdom are of victory and joy, and that they mirror the joy of the lover and the beloved in Solomon’s poem. But I still feel that there is much sadness in this book. Even Scripture tells of affection so deep that the perpetual separation and reunion of the lovers is painful to read about. For love is strong as death.

There is an intensity in the love of these martyrs that I am not sure I can relate to. I do not want to turn the courage of martyrs into a lesson for my Western life, a counterpart of religious freedom and luxury. I know that I am disconnected but I cannot stop reading these stories and I crave more of them.

I have been thinking about Jesus Camp, the film I saw last week in a packed out theatre. The filmmakers follow a children’s pastor in Missouri as she plans and leads a camp retreat for evangelical children. I have peripheral experience with a lot of the things going on at the camp, but their faith is more charismatic than mine, and the kids speak in tongues. The camp director places a life sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush in front of the campers and the kids pray for him, lifting their hands and weeping. The children’s pastor tells the filmmakers that the president has brought a lot of credibility to Christianity. The camp leaders write words like “government” on china-cups, inviting seven-year-olds to smash them with a hammer in the name of Jesus. These scenes strike the audience as funny and they laugh, nervously. I laugh too but am alarmed by the violently symbolic act, the politics that seem out of place at a kids’ camp.

I felt I had little in common with these brothers and sisters apart from our fundamental beliefs. I was raised in Canada in the periphery of the religious right and slightly cautioned about mixing politics with religion. But still, I was raised in the Western Church. I know we have made mistakes, and I know we have been legalistic and judgmental. So I leave the theatre feeling responsible and sad, unable to reconcile this portrait of Western Christianity with Wurmbrand’s portrait of Christ’s followers in the communist world. But I want to believe that the Lord will use Jesus Camp for His glory, as a story of God’s love for a people that are offensive, and hurtful, but look for Christ.

In spite of their strength and sacrifice, I feel sadness for those kids. Like the martyrs, they are the brides of Christ, separated from their Love. The children in the film are perhaps misled in some ways, but seek the face of God as desperately as the Christians I have been reading about, thrown into prison and murdered for their faith. One common fundamental belief is all we have to unite us. But a desperate love for Christ is enough to reconcile two vastly different portraits of Christianity, and a Church that transcends geography, culture and time.

You are beautiful, my love … terrible as an army with banners.

For all our terrible attempts to bring Him glory, He still calls us beautiful. I pray that we might love His Church so unconditionally, so terribly. If we must share in the blunders of our brothers and sisters, so we are blessed to share in their victories and strengths and miracles. I praise Him for His martyrs, and I selfishly hope that in their prayers they did not forget the Western Church, desperate as the children in the film.

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