This week I asked a group of college students what it is that makes a martyr a martyr. The context was a discussion of ancient Christian martyrs whose sacrifice for the sake of their faith was likened to the ‘pure sacrifice’ of their Savior. These late teens were discovering for the first time the claim that when Polycarp, the early 2nd century bishop, was burned at the stake he would not die for each time he was stabbed his blood would put out of the flames. The burning of his flesh was also claimed to have smelled like baking bread. I asked the students why people would want to make claims such as those. Why would someone want to remember another person’s death in that way? We were trying to get underneath the ideas not only for their appreciation of ancient Christian practices but for the sake of the practices that might end up defining their own lives. Having shared how the etymology of the word ‘martyr’ reveals that at its core it is about bearing witness, I asked them ‘What is your witness going to be?’. There were a few murmurs. It was nearly time for lunch after all. We will try again next class.
‘What is your witness going to be?’ is clearly a question for our times. Just this past week, the members of Garfield High School football team in Seattle, Washington, went to their knees as the National Anthem was played before the start of their game. It was a political statement of a group of young men who wanted to show their solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who has been kneeling for the anthem since pre-season in protest at the lack of racial justice in America in a spate of shootings of African-American men at the hands of police, the latest being just yesterday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to the Seattle Times, the Garfield High team members were rallied to kneel for the anthem not only because of Kaepernick’s protest but because they had discovered the words of the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner, which offer a chilling warning to slaves who might flee their owners, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave; from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”. I imagine that this particular group of millennials, a generation perhaps wrongly characterized as suffering from political apathy, would have plenty to teach our nation about the sort of conversation we should be having about the words we choose, so unreservedly, to celebrate. Perhaps it is time we all took to our knees and ask for forgiveness for having retained that third verse for as long as we have.
Of course, the spirit of liberty so celebrated here in the United States was first inspired by the revolutionary events that founded the modern Republic of France, a country it would seem in a convoluted struggle with what it means to be free to bear witness to one’s religious identity. An Australian Muslim woman was apparently harangued on the Villeneuve-Loubet beach in the south of France this week for wearing a burkini. According to the BBC, Zeynab Alshelh, a 23-year-old medical student, had travelled to Europe to show solidarity with local Muslim women who still face hostility despite a high court ruling overruling a ban on burkinis. It is a confused picture of what it means to be free in a country supposedly founded to safeguard the people of the state from the machinations of established religion. Secularism when enshrined constitutionally should mean that people are free to disagree, to express their worldviews without fear of censure. I suppose each of the nations we belong to must look more odd from a distance than they do from within.
So where does this age of witnessing to witnesses leave those of us who proclaim a witness to an infinite source of hope and reconciliation? It is in many ways not a question that we can afford to take our time in answering. In just a few short weeks, the American people will cast their votes and elect someone to bear witness to American values and aspirations to the world beyond. Ours is a time when anyone, seemingly, can say anything, no matter how divisive or egregious, and find that their voice is not only heard in the public square but that it is celebrated. One of the candidates has run a large part of their campaign on the back of such a strategy. Given this, it behooves those who profess to have faith in a God of compassion, of other-oriented relationality, of self-donating love, should make their own voices heard and bear their own witness in public life however that opportunity might be afforded to them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously said that when people tell him that politics and religion should not mix he asks them which Bible they have been reading. Christianity is a public faith. It is intended to be expressed and enacted in the life of the world Christians believe God has not only made, but which God seeks the restoration of. There is a long way to go. Let’s not leave it all to the football players. They will need some subs sometime soon.