Today is St. Stephen’s Day, and my birthday. Throughout the years of my life I have been keenly aware at times that my birthday falls on a day much of the Christian world celebrates the martyrdom of the deacon Stephen. Stephen is said to be the first martyr. None other than the Apostle Paul, prior to his conversion, witnessed and gave approval to Stephen’s martyrdom. The older I got the more I longed to attach my birthday to such a man, and the less worthy and equipped I felt in doing so. Actually, I’m the sort of zealous guy that probably would have stoned him. My life and heritage here in the United States seems light years from a time and place where I would be martyred for my faith…especially my personal expression of faith.
The recent reports of Christians being martyred in the Middle East by various factions of Islam reminds me of my sheltered existence. So as I sit here on my birthday meditating on St. Stephen, I’m saddened by the fact that I’m not sure that Christians in the United States even know what the word “martyr” means! Us gun toting conservative Christians have a tendency to attach ourselves to the words of General Patton more than we do to the brave apologetic of Stephen. Patton responded to threats this way:
“No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.” (James M. Gavin, War and Peace in the Space Age)
War is a horrible thing, but I know that in order to protect our friends and families it is sometimes necessary to go to war. I’ve got good friends who fought to defend the freedoms of others, and I’m proud of them. We Americans have been educated very clearly on what war is over the past couple of centuries, but I’m not sure we would know what martyrdom was if it was staring us in the face. Some Christians fantasize about such a moment, but many of them are more versed in why Trump is the best candidate for our nation than they are on why and how they have a life-giving hope that might lead them to die without killing someone in the process. Maybe that is because we have become accustomed to our condition. So accustomed, in fact, that we would rather kill to protect that condition than die to bear witness to an eternal condition offered to all that might believe.
I feel as though St. Stephen speaks to our “condition” as he spoke to the condition of the Hebrews. In Acts chapter 6 Stephen is accused of speaking against the cultural identity of the Hebrews: their temple and their customs. Stephen responded in chapter 7 by reminding his accusers of the long and culturally unstable journey that the Hebrews had walked through history from the time of Abraham. He reminded them that the only thing stable was the faithfulness of their God. He reminded them that the temple they took pride in was not really the dwelling place of God. Stephen sought to remind his accusers that the dwelling place of God is not made by human hands. Nor is the dwelling place of God created by compacts or constitutions. Once Stephen’s accusers heard the indictment he spoke against them, they became even more hardened in their hearts, and gnashing their teeth they rushed him in a mob bent on justice. I’ve seen this angry mob over and over the last several years: This mob that blindly defends THE NATION! This mob that mindlessly defends LOVE! This mob that fruitlessly defends JUSTICE, via virtual reality. This mob that heartlessly defends FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION! This mob that ignorantly defends GENDER FLEXIBILITY! I could go on, but I’d numb you and myself in the process. We will gladly become the mob, but will we become the martyr? Do we even know what that word means?
I encourage you all today to stop and consider what it has meant throughout history to be a martyr. There are jihadists who explode themselves, and target civilians, and wage conventional wars in the hopes that they somehow will experience martyrdom. I doubt this is what our God views as martyrdom. It’s certainly not akin to the martyrdom that Stephen experienced, or the families eaten by lions in the arena. Where does our Lord Jesus commend us to kill for our faith? Again, I encourage you to go and learn what it means to be a martyr. You can start by reading Stephen’s story in Acts chapters 6 and 7, and then move on to reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. As we learn let us continue to be thankful each day for the testimony of those who have laid down their lives to speak of a culture beyond cultures, a joy beyond consumption, and a hope beyond this death.