Do we know a martyr when we see one?
by Tripp Hudgins
New Testament Reading: Acts 7:55-60
For Sunday, May 22, 2011: Year A - Easter 5
Mr. Spock, in the second of the Star Trek films sacrifices himself at the end of the movie saying, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.” Yes, he sacrifices himself for the sake of his crew mates and friends. Spock is a hero. But is Spock a martyr? It is unclear…especially since he dumped his consciousness into Dr. McCoy’s head.
A hero is one who sacrifices themselves for a so-called greater good. Their own actions, however, are sometimes violent and lead to their own violent end. Even if something “good” comes from it, heroes are often perpetrators of violence. See: every action movie ever made.
The story of Stephen is, as tradition reminds us, the story of the first martyr. Stephen is the first of the followers of Jesus to die because of his faithful witness. There is a labor shortage and the Twelve need some help. Stephen is one of seven appointed as a someone of good standing, one filled with the Holy Spirit, and wisdom (Acts 6:3). According to the story, Stephen gets right to work and his preaching lands him in a religious court facing trumped up charges. During his trial he lays out his defense and it so scandalizes those present that they take him to the edge of town and stone him. He kneels and offers his spirit up to Jesus his last breath asking forgiveness for his killers. Saul, who would become Paul, is there to witness it all.
Throughout the history of the Church we have held up men and women who have lived out the call to follow Christ in dramatic and life altering fashion. Many of these men and women have died in the process. These we have called “martyrs.” They have been enshrined in basilicas, cathedrals, and oratories for centuries. Believers were known to go out seeking their deaths hoping for a one-way ticket to heaven. We have a long and strange history of seeking death in the name of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famous for the statement “Christ bids us come and die.” It’s not a particularly uplifting-Joel-Osteen understanding of the Gospel. Up With People likely would not adopt this as their mission statement. Still, it stares us in the face. Bonhoeffer is speaking of dying to self as well as the knowledge that where God calls the believer to stand might be a dangerous place. His own life would reflect this reality. Yet, he dies not for his faith but because of his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Many still disagree on whether or not he was a martyr. Perhaps he was a hero, but a martyr?
The Hardest Question
Is Stephen a hero or martyr? He is killed because of what he professed. He is not a violent man and poses no real obvious threat to the powers that be. He simply states something that they do not want to hear: their own culpability in systems of violence. Yet he cajoles them. Is he looking for trouble? He almost appears to be grandstanding. Is Stephen really a martyr? Do we know a martyr when we see one?
Tripp Hudgins is baptimonastic, mandolin-playing Jesus enthusiast, a preaching pastor, baptist cantor, liturgist, ecumenist, writer of articles, tangentist, and husband. He is the pastor of The Community Church of Wilmette in Wilmette, IL, a suburb of Chicago. His blog can be found at www.anglobaptist.org and he tweets as @anglobaptist.