Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries
1 Peter 4:12-19
As recently as 2015, the extremist group ISIS produced a video to terrify the world. Dressed and hooded in black, the militants marched a group of 21 Coptic Christians dressed in orange, prison-style jumpsuits along a beach in Libya. The horrifying scene concluded with the cruel beheading of all 21 Christians. It shocked and horrified the world to see such a brazen act of violence not only perpetrated but promulgated to a global audience. One of the men was from either Ghana or Chad, the other 20 who had been kidnapped were poor immigrants from rural Egypt who were willing to risk the instability of Libya to escape the poverty and religious persecution of their homeland.
Such are the martyrs we remember today. It was a gruesome event and without the anesthetizing gloss of centuries it stands out like a raw wound on the Body of Christ in our own time. We remember these martyrs and others of the recent century. 3 million Armenian Christians martyred in genocide during the first world war. A million Orthodox killed by the Soviet regime in the 1920’s and 30’s. Countless other hidden martyrs vanish in parts of the world to which the western media is indifferent or blocked. Among groups who track the numbers of Christian martyrs in the world there seems to be agreement that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the second millennium of Christianity than the first. These horrors are not history, they are news.
Why remember such horrors? The memory is fresh, it almost seems unnecessary. Remembering in order to prevent horrors of martyrdom hardly seems to be working either. Remembering so as to seek out a violent death like theirs would be pathological.
We remember to bring them and Christ present to us again because of who we believe Christ to be. We remember to confront these horrors with the risen Christ, the only power sufficient to embody, subsume, and redeem the suffering of horror.
Marilyn McCord Adams offers a vision of Christology asserting that one of Jesus’ main job-descriptions is Horror-Defeater. When the God of all creation allowed horrors to exist, God also always had the power and intention to swallow up and ultimately defeat them. As the Godhead became incarnate in the man Jesus, he took on all the vulnerability of humankind to the events and circumstances that strip life of meaning.
By so doing, God entered into solidarity with us and opened a path of intimacy for us with God in our suffering of horror. As we can perceive God with us in Christ, there is a process of healing and restoring our own meaning-making capacities available to us. And finally, we are gifted the hope that by the power of the resurrection our radical vulnerability to horrors will finally be excised in the redemption of all things.
It is in that ultimate hope, then, that we remember the down payment that was made in Jesus’ life, his miracles of healing and resurrection. We look for the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come in which we are freed from every threat of horror. And in that final healing we can see our suffering redeemed and transformed into beloved intimacy with God.
Until the day of Christ’s glorious appearing, suffering remains very real and present and we don’t remember it away, but we turn to hope that a power sufficient to transfigure our pain has be demonstrated in Christ.
Soon after the horrifying beheading on the beach, an icon was written by Tony Rezk depicting the 21 men, now garbed in orange robes kneeling on the beach with their eyes up to heaven where Jesus beckons them, wearing his own orange sash as angels present them with 21 crowns. The all-sufficient power of Christ’s defeat of horror has the power to heal, redeem, and banish our vulnerability to sin, evil, and death. May we remember such martyrs well, to bolster our hope in times of suffering, to grieve alongside those who suffer now, and to point always to the blessed hope of our union with God in Christ. Amen.
 Adams, Marilyn McCord. Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology. Based on the Gifford Lectures for 1998–1999. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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