A Clear Witness – Br. Lain Wilson

Luke 12:1-12

We remember today the southern African missionary and martyr Bernard Mizeki. Born in modern-day Mozambique, he came to the Christian faith while a young man in South Africa, where he was baptized in 1866 by Father Puller of our Society. In 1891, he traveled to Mashonaland, in the northeast of modern-day Zimbabwe, to serve as a missionary to the Shona people.

In the year of his death, 1896, rebellion against the British South African Company spread to the Shona people, and Mizeki resisted orders to escape to safety. Resentment and violence served as a backdrop to Mizeki’s own death that June at the hands of one of his adopted kinsmen, the tension between traditional religion and Mizeki’s work spreading the Gospel message coming to a tragic head.

Martyrs capture our imaginations. We may read about the great martyrs of the early church who endured shocking, inhuman treatment, and we can wonder at their strength of conviction, at their fearless resolve, at their seeming superhuman capacity. They were very close, in time and culture, to Jesus and his words from our Gospel lesson: “do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more” (Lk 12:4). As we read about these martyrs, it is easy for us to wonder at and admire them . . . and at the same time to handle them with a critical distance: then and now, them and us.

Bernard Mizeki challenges us to close this critical gap. Although marked by social and cultural practices different than our own, Mizeki’s world is also very close to ours. It’s a world of international businesses and family tensions, of empire and community, of fear and hope. Our exact circumstances may differ, but Mizeki shows us how martyrdom can happen in a world not too distant from our own—a response to forces that still surround us, and that are largely out of our control.

And this is because martyrdom is about who and how we are in the face of these larger-than-life forces. It’s not primarily about suffering or violence or perseverance or courage, or even death, really, but about a clarity of identity. Mizeki was only able to be found and killed because he had ignored orders to go to safety: he was caring for an incapacitated man, who, under cultural norms, would have been left helpless had Mizeki departed. “I cannot leave my people now in a time of such darkness,” he wrote.[1] The simple choice to care for one man’s life, in the face of unrelenting, irresistible forces—a metaphor for clarity in knowing who he was, who God created him to be.

And so martyrdom is not about death but life—life that makes present in the world God’s eternal kingdom. The martyrs do not inspire us because their courage or fearlessness in the face of adversity or pain or terror is exceptional, but because it is consistent with who they are and how they lived their lives, at important and unimportant moments. And that lesson is available to us—to discover who God is calling us to be, in this place, in this moment. To hew closely to that call, returning to it again and again in the unending and seemingly unimportant choices that face us, and so to be consistent and clear in our identity. And, at the end, to not be afraid, because we are of more value than many sparrows, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.


[1] M. A. Noll, C. Nystrom, Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (Downers Grove, IL, 2011), 29.

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  1. Tudy Hill on July 12, 2024 at 16:33

    “And so martyrdom is not about death but life—life that makes present in the world God’s eternal kingdom.”

    An eye-opener to me that makes sense! Thank you, Br Lain.

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