The Church Needs Her Martyrs

Yesterday I wrote about visiting St. Albans Abbey here in the UK. Today I'd like to comment on something else I enjoyed at the abbey, the martyr nave screen.

The nave screen in St. Albans Abbey displays seven martyrs of the church. From the Abbey website, the seven are:
Amphibalus is the priest whom Alban sheltered and helped to escape, but who was later martyred at Redbourn, and his relics brought to St Albans. His shrine, currently in the North Ambulatory, will be restored as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. It was his influence that brought Alban to Christ. He encourages us to share our faith with those around us, both by our words and by our deeds, even when it may bring us into trouble.

George Tankerfield is a Protestant martyr who was burned under Queen Mary on Romeland, opposite the Cathedral’s west front. He is another example of a man who stood up for his beliefs whatever the cost – and his story reminds us that as well as being the oppressed, religious people have just as often been the oppressors.

Alban Roe is a Catholic priest and martyr, arrested under the Commonwealth and imprisoned in the Abbey gatehouse until his execution in London. Together with George Tankerfield he reminds us that the Reformation disputes inspired both great heroism and great cruelty. They are an example and warning to us to seek reconciliation in our own time between all faiths and denominations, and never to let our differences descend into hatred and violence.

St Elisabeth Romanova was a member of the Russian Royal Family and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who in her widowhood became a nun and Abbess. She was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, because they feared that the people, who admired her holiness and acts of charity, might try to re-establish the monarchy through her. She is an example of a saint who was willing to give up wealth and power to serve Christ in the poor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in a concentration camp for his opposition to the Nazis and executed in 1945. He had had the chance to escape to America, but chose to stay in Germany to fight the Nazis and stand up for genuine Christianity, at a time when the majority of the Church there had chosen to follow Hitler. He is a reminder that sometimes we are called to fight directly against evil, and to be rejected by our own community for the sake of the truth.

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass at the chapel of the hospital where he lived, because of his outspoken defence of the poor and his condemnation of the totalitarian regime in his country. Though by instinct a quiet, scholarly and conservative man, he was driven by conscience to speak out against injustice, and he challenges us to do the same. 

You're surrounded by martyrs when you tour through old churches in the UK, but the inclusion of modern martyrs at St Albans--like Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two heroes of mine--really brought home to me a point I've raised before on this blog. From my 2014 post entitled "Blood Trumps Everything":
Human life is the most sacred thing. Blood trumps everything.

To be sure, many would rush to say that God is the most sacred thing. That God trumps everything.

But in point of fact, that's not true. Empirically speaking, we behave as if--as well we should--that human life is the most sacred thing.

And this is what makes patriotism and the flag the most sacred thing. This is why the nation is the most sacred thing. Because human life was sacrificed--blood was spilt--for these things. The blood of the solider consecrates and baptizes the flag and the nation. And because blood trumps everything, because there is no holier and more sacred thing than human life, the flag and the nation is the most sacred thing in the world.

I experience this viscerally whenever I'm asked to stand at an athletic event for the national anthem. All around me there are grey haired men, many wearing ball caps telling about their military service. Veterans. Theologically, I chaff at displays of national allegiance. And yet, I feel awkward standing around these grey haired gentlemen during "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't want my theological beliefs to be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. These men gave their blood, their lives for that flag. That they survived doesn't diminish this. For in their memories, as they sing the national anthem, they see the faces of friends who made, as we say, the ultimate sacrifice.

And again, blood trumps everything.

My point in all this is that debates about things like nationalism or pacifism aren't simply abstract theological discussions. These debates need to, but often fail to, take into consideration the sacred element of human blood. These debates need to reckon with the fact that blood is the most sacred thing we know, more sacred, even, than God. Emotionally, where this argument will be won or lost, blood will trump theology. Always.

And this is why the church needs her martyrs.

Phrased another way, an issue like pacifism cannot be adjudicated theologically. It can only be adjudicated ecclesiologically. Pacifism isn't about ideas. It's about blood. And without blood the academic defense of pacifism will never prevail in the pews. Because blood trumps everything. Which is why the church needs her martyrs.

Is it any surprise that the Protestant tradition most associated with pacifism and anti-nationalism--the Anabaptists--is the Protestant tradition with the most robust commemoration of her martyrs?

In short, if blood is the most sacred thing we know the church needs to have some blood in the game if she is to stand as a counter-cultural witness to the blood-soaked flag of a nation.

Because that flag, given how much blood it represents, is very, very sacred.

And blood trumps everything.

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