These feel like somewhat turbulent times. Daily reports of shootings, bombings, and massacres fill the news, making us wonder if this world is going to hell in a hand basket, as Mama would have said. It seems we live in a violent world now, a world more violent than perhaps even a world war, simply because although there are no huge battles like there were in the wars, daily skirmishes spread out from small communities in rural areas to large cities. And then on top of it, we have people who are killed simply because of who or what they are. We call these martyrs; they died because they were Muslim, or LGBT, or African-American, Hispanic, or any of a number of designations.
Today we commemorate the martyrs of Uganda in 1886, 45 young men, 23 Anglicans and 22 Roman Catholics. The young men were pages at the court of King Mwanga. King Mwganga's father, Mutesa, had allowed Christian priests to preach to members of the members of the court, and so the pages were exposed to this new religion. When Mwanga gained the throne, it was obvious that these converts owed greater loyalty to God than to the king. When the young pages refused to have sexual relations with the king, he ordered them to be punished. Many believe that the pages refused to participate in homosexuality, but I think it was as much a show of the king's power, much like rape of women and children in local battles that are still common in some parts of the world today. On the journey from the king's court to their execution site they sang hymns and praised God. They demonstrated their Christianity, and, one many converts despite the danger of being Christian in a country ruled by a person who felt himself to be the law and above the law. The pages were rolled in lengths of cloth and thrown, still alive, on burning pyres. Not a pleasant death by any means.
Sometimes we use the word martyr so easily these days. I'm not referring to religious groups and others on buses that are blown up by rival religious groups, or innocent people whose lives are shattered when a specific group targets them for just being in a public place. No, the way I was referring to martyr has a much narrower meaning -- the way many people today refer to themselves as martyrs because their religious beliefs are not the law of the land, or where their beliefs meet opposition rather than immediate acceptance. Maybe it feels like martyrdom to them; however, it would be hard to place a disagreement of beliefs that never reaches a level of physical violence with being tossed onto burning pyres while alive because a person professes a certain religion.
One of the martyrs of Uganda was a 14- or 15-year-old boy named Kizito. He was the youngest of the martyrs and Kizito is the only name we have for him or even if that is his real name. Americans probably never heard of them, but for many years Kizito was a very popular name in that part of Africa. I wonder about the children who die on our streets, even ones who are in their own homes and sometimes their own beds and who are slain by stray bullets because somebody felt that somebody else disrespected them. Aren't these little ones martyrs to a society where violence is increasingly becoming a way of life? Often violence is the result of frustration, anxiety, and anger that the world is so unbalanced in so many ways. Then there are those who are perceived to be threats and who are victims of hate crimes, from mock lynchings to vile painted messages to desecrated places of worship and cemeteries. These aren't new things; they're as old as the hills but are nonetheless still shocking that they have happened here, in a place touted as the "...Land of the free, and the home of the brave."
Our fallen veterans are returned home in flag draped coffins, are not they martyrs in a sense? Granted, they volunteered to go, but they believed in our country and they believed in the right of all to live in safety. So they went and, like a former next-door neighbor of mine, came home from Afghanistan in one of those flag draped boxes. I think of him as a martyr because he did what he felt was his duty in a hostile environment and knowing that there were always risks of maiming or death. So how do we treat those who return alive but damaged from tours of duty that place them in harm's way? Do we respect them? Or do we just insist they "get on with life" as if they hadn't been witnesses (and sometimes participants) in things most of us wouldn't even watch on television. I wonder -- is there a category for living martyrs?
This week I will be thinking about true martyrs -- people that honestly suffered and quite often died for something they believed in that was greater than themselves. I believe that I should consider true martyrs and the witness that they bear, especially like those in Uganda whose martyrdoms bore great fruit in terms of converts. I think that's something I need to consider much more deeply -- and pray to have their strength in times of greatest trial.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 3, 2017.