by Mr. Andrew Boyd
It’s fun to celebrate the victorious image of Christ, to wave palms with the crowd and shout as the king enters in glory. Palm Sunday is a festive celebration of our King who will save us from the “others” the oppressors, whether they are Roman or modern. The rest of our Holy Week may not have the same mass appeal, the same mass effect of a celebratory crowd. When I return to church that Sunday night, for the first bridegroom matins of Holy Week, I am always completely surprised. “Behold, the bridegroom” we all sing in front of the icon of Christ humiliated. That victorious king who will save us from our enemies is replaced by Christ humiliated, beaten-down, and powerless, on his way to his own voluntary death by his own submissive choice.
The Church has always followed the way of Christ, and consequently, has always been persecuted in every time and place in a variety of subtle and glaring ways. From Steven’s powerful witness by his death in Acts through to here and now, the Church has always been persecuted. There has never been some sort of “golden age” when the Church was not persecuted by external or internal forces, by governments and hierarchs, heretics and heathens. Christ himself prophesied this before his passion in John’s Gospel. To be a Christian, to be a part of this Church which has Christ as the head, is to bear witness to the world through our own life-creating, and meaningful suffering and death.
When I think about martyrdom in our modern context, this image of Christ’s extreme humility always comes to mind. Christ the Word is silent. Christ the All-Powerful is powerless. Christ our immortal King and God is dead. This Christ is beautiful. This Christ who died for us is the most beautiful thing that most of us will ever see which is why we spend so much time decorating the tomb during Holy Week and it’s why we make our crosses so ornate. The model that Christ shows us for eternal life is his own martyrdom, his own way of extreme humiliation that led to life breaking forth for us all from his sealed tomb. He had to die, because death is the only universal human experience, and he came into the world to fully embrace humanity. He had to die, because our sin leads to death, and he came into the world to conquer sin and death. He encountered death and hell and rose again victorious over both. Christ’s self-sacrificial journey opened for all of us the path to eternal life, salvation, and life with him in his kingdom.
In much of modern Christianity, however, so much of the rhetoric involved in public discourse seems to be centered on a kind of odd victim identity. Like those in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, we want to make Christ into an earthly King, but Christ came into this world to save us from our own sins, not to save us from other people. Yet, if you turn on cable news or read newspapers or blogs, the constant message of Christians seems to be not the amazing, Gospel message of the Crucified and Risen Messiah, but rather a cacophony of noise that makes us sound more like a lobbying group and less like the body of Christ. “Our rights have been violated,” you might hear, or, “This is unfair and unconstitutional!” Increasingly the Christian witness to our world is just the noise of another lobbying group, begging for its piece of the pie.
Our priorities, our discourse should be of a very different tack. I heard a story once about an abbot of the Monastery of Stavronikita on Mount Athos. He was attending a theological conference in Greece, meeting with bishops and theologians, church leaders and thinkers. They were discussing how bad everything was, the troubles of the Church, and how the government was making everything worse. This abbot (who was exceedingly young at the time) got up to make his speech and said, “Yes, things are bad the world is bad, and there is materialism and secularism, and atheism, but let us rejoice, let us have hope because they can take everything from us, but they cannot rob us our death. In fact, they may even help us to glorify God in it.” We cannot be robbed of our death, and the ultimate witness to God is always ours to make, if we are courageous enough, and worthy enough. As bad as things might become for Christians, we can never be robbed of our power to witness to Christ, we can never be robbed of our choice to die for him as he died for us all, whether metaphorically or actually.
I am going to make a radical claim, Christians do not have rights. Ok, in reality in most countries in this world we do. But rights are a selfish concern. The great Russian religious thinker and writer, Nikolai Berdyaev wrote ““Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” Likewise, I would argue that my rights are a selfish concern, but the rights of my neighbor are a selfless one. We are spending an inordinate amount of time in the public sphere clamoring for our supposed rights. The only right that a Christian has is to the promised wage for the worker in the vineyard. That’s all the gospel says we are entitled to. But what about the rights of our neighbors? What about the rights of the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the unborn? Instead of worrying about those rights it has become fashionable for Christians to feign offense at being greeted with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, or to worry about what some bus ad in London says.
This all seems to me to point to a disturbing loss of perspective. Have we lost the definition of persecution in our Church? Have we forgotten what it means to be a martyr, a witness, a Christian? Sometimes, I fear we have. As American Christians, we live in incredible comfort, wanting for very little compared to our ancestors and to Christians in other countries. We enjoy rights and freedoms unheard of in the Roman Empire, Holy Russia, Byzantium, or even most of modern Asia and the Middle East. We are called to be martyrs, to witness to the world the death and resurrection of our incarnate God, Jesus Christ. The perennial question is how to do that in our context. Do we witness to Christ when we clamor for attention and complain about perceived persecution? Or do we witness to Christ the way He witnessed to the world, by silently enduring all that the Father gave him, for the salvation of others? Our modern martyrdom is simply the martyrdom of Jesus Christ made present in our time and place through us. It’s His radical, extreme, and self-sacrificial love that we are called to make present, keeping in mind that He speaks out in defense of others, and keeps silent in defense of Himself.