The Christian movement that has grown to more than 2.3 billion adherents was birthed in martyrdom. Martyrdom is sometimes viewed as a terrible, if not foolish, way to die. Yet many who have chosen this path had been persuaded that their freedom to die in the name and service of Jesus Christ trumped every other option.
Jesus, himself, started this tradition, suffering a gruesome death for freely bearing the truth of his gospel. His freedom from above defied every earthly effort to silence him. He steadfastly refused to relinquish his freedom to act on earth in accordance with the divine will despite the threat of deadly violence to his body. Most of his closest disciples experienced a similar fate.
What does martyrdom have to do with those who live in a context of religious freedom in which death by martyrdom may seem irrelevant?
First and most obvious is the question: “Is my faith strong enough that I would be willing to die for it?” Students in courses about the history of Christianity find themselves grappling with this question when introduced to early Christianity in the ancient Roman Empire. Details about fiery, brutal, and gory deaths of women, children, and men, as a consequence of their faith in Christ, abound enough to shock the sensibilities of those unused to violent challenges to faith.
Second is the brutal fact that religious martyrdom is still commonplace in our world. Twenty-first century Christians and members of other religions are frequently persecuted and even murdered in cold blood because of their beliefs.
The Pew Research Center tracks both government restrictions and social hostilities related to religion across the globe. In 2017 the Center documented an increase in the number of nations with high levels of religious intolerance and hostility. They found that Christians were harassed for their faith in more countries than any other religious group. It should be noted that the US is not without religious hostility.
If we believe with the apostle Paul that if one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers, the persecution and martyrdom of sisters and brothers in any part of the world profoundly matters to us all.
Third, Christians should never take for granted religious freedom for ourselves or for others. Two-thirds of the world’s population is deprived of religious freedom. Most persecution and martyrdom occur in nations that lack religious freedom.
From a Wesleyan perspective in a context of religious freedom, how can we best build on, rather than diminish, our association with the faithful service and willing martyrdom of those who have given their lives in bloody sacrifice for Jesus?
We may recognize, first, the Holy Spirit’s work of grace in persecution and martyrdom, but similarly in a life of obedience and service. In Christian history, we have accounts of the martyrdom of saints such as Stephen, Paul, Polycarp, Perpetua, Catherine, and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom gave their lives in sacrifice for their belief and obedience to Jesus. We have also the stories of Mary, Martha, Augustine, Martin Luther, and Mother Teresa — and countless others, all of whom spent and gave their lives in sacrificial service in the name and Spirit of Jesus. Through the life and witness of those who died for the faith and those who have lived long lives of service for the faith, the Holy Spirit extends abundant preventing, convicting, justifying and sanctifying grace.
Second, the Wesleyan theological heritage possesses a deep appreciation of the free will that is God’s gift in creation to every person. An appreciation of free will and its role in concert with the Holy Spirit in the great work of salvation defies any inclination toward the coercion of persons, against their will, in matters of faith. Just as Christians who die for their faith affirm tenaciously the gift of free will to affirm faith in Christ regardless of any punishment, those who live in faith must recognize both our freedom to confess and follow Christ, and the freedom of others to choose not to do so. This conviction accentuates the blessing of religious freedom as a context for Christian conversion and growth, but also the importance of prayerfully waiting on the Holy Spirit to convict others of this faith and its fruits.
Third, the suffering of martyrdom impresses upon the Wesleyan Christian the weight of Christian conscience both in life and in facing death of any kind. In his sermon, “On Conscience,” John Wesley described conscience as “a faculty of the soul which, by the assistance of the grace of God, sees at one and the same time, (1) our own tempers and lives, … (2) the rule [of the word of God] whereby we are to be directed, and (3) the agreement or disagreement therewith.” It is conscience as well as conviction that compel a Christian, in the face of pressure to deny Jesus Christ, to accept death as a martyr. The same conscience and conviction compel the faithful to live each day of our lives in service to Jesus Christ as a witness to his life, death, and resurrection.