It's a bright, sunny day with comfortable temperatures. It's the kind of day where it is hard to think of anything but good things like cute babies, fluffy kittens (or frolicking puppies), vacations at the beach (or the mountains), hot dogs at the ball park, or beer at the 19th tee. It's a nice day for kids to be playing soccer or baseball, or biking with their friends around the nice, safe neighborhood. It's a good day, the kind people daydream of as they go about their normal work week.
It's hard to think about people in places that are very different, places where kids can't play outside because the area isn't safe for them--or for anyone really. They are homeless because someone whose politics or religion were far different decided that there needed to be changes, either governmental ones and/or religious conversions, either by choice or by force. Their homes and businesses are in ruins, they may be living in the midst of rubble or an overcrowded tent city with inadequate food, water and sanitation. The people there would probably like to think about baby animals, soccer games, and safe neighborhoods, but their reality is something very different.
There are many areas of the world where the different reality is clear, but today we mark the commemoration of people in one particular place, Sudan. Until it gained independence in 1956, the British had ruled the country with an arbitrary border intended to keep the peace but which, in fact, lead to much of what we see today, namely religious conflict. The British assigned the northern section to the Muslims and the south to more diverse ethnically and religiously-based groups. After the independence, the uneasy tension between the two halves of the country began to tighten and civil war became the name of the game for the next forty years. Beginning in the 1980s the Islamic government of the north increasingly enforced Sharia law and extended that influence into the south. We still see the results on the news almost nightly.
The Sudanese Martyrs represented all levels of society from military and religious leaders to ordinary people, all who refused to give up their Christian beliefs and convert to Islam as they were being pressured to do. Over the last few decades, Christians like them have tried to survive in what is now South Sudan, but in the course of that struggle two and a half million people have died as martyrs, four million have been displaced, and another million have been scattered around Africa and in other parts of the world, including the US. Religious buildings and schools were razed, and safety for Christians was and is almost nonexistent.
The conflict continues with no end in sight. The Sudanese martyrs chose to follow Christ, as did the early Christians of Rome and the Mediterranean area. They followed to the death, just as many Christians around the world as well as in South Sudan are still doing today.
We hear people talk about others as martyrs, mostly because the ones under discussion are doing something difficult or unpleasant without a lot of complaining or boasting. Another popular use of "martyr" is from those who insist they have all the right answers and beliefs and feel put-upon because other people disagree with them and refuse to join with them. The verbal conflict can get very loud and heated, but usually the war of words does not cause fatalities that would truly make martyrs. Words, though, often escalate into action.
There are Christians under very real attack around the world and we watch, horrified, as churches, temples, shrines, and schools are bombed and burned, children are murdered along with their parents and grandparents, and survivors are uprooted and forced to flee to places where survival is a genuine struggle. All refugees are not Christian nor are all martyrs Christian. Many die for their particular faith, unlike those who claim martyrdom because others won't accept their beliefs or faith. That pseudo-martyrdom seems like a copy from a printer that is almost out of ink.
We have had our martyrs, people who have died because of their beliefs and their following of their beliefs when others were intent on crushing their visible practice of those beliefs. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the little girls in Birmingham who died when someone bombed their church. They weren't intending to be martyrs but they became innocent ones. Martin Luther King, Jr? Definitely a martyr. Fr. Mychal Judge, who ran into the maelstrom of the 9/11 disaster? He chose to face possible death to practice his faith and bring help and comfort to those most in need at that moment. Nuns earned the crown of martyrs in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Liberia because others felt they were dangerous as did Bishop Oscar Romero. The list goes on and on.
There are lots of examples of true martyrs, including many outside the Christian faith. We must never feel we have a lock on martyrdom. We have to be careful to make sure we use the word not as a cheap play for pity or agreement but rather as an accolade for those who have truly given their all rather than simply giving in to pressure. The martyrs of Sudan are our reminders today of the price Jesus has called us to pay, a price he paid himself because a he was thought to be danger to them the Temple and the Empire. He was just living his faith and teaching about it, and that, to his enemies, was dangerous.
Today's collect reads:
O God, steadfast in the midst of persecution, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: As the martyrs of the Sudan refused to abandon Christ even in the face of torture and death, and so by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest, may we, too, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. AmenThose are words to carry with us today and every day. We never know when we may be forced to make the choice the martyrs made. May we be as strong, brave and faithful.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 16, 2015, under the title "The Martyrs of Sudan."