In commenting on worship a few days ago, I observed that the challenge all of us face is faithful perseverance in God until death. In Western societies we face subtle, and not-so-subtle, pressures and temptations that would pull us away from God. I sometimes reflect, sadly, on the number of my peers, and wider family, who were once actively part of worshipping Christian communities, but no longer are.
But today’s news brings home starkly what an increasing number of our Christian brothers and sisters face: the choice between death and renouncing their faith. Coming hard after the murder on the Libyan beach of Coptic Christians, today we read of a new round of IS murders of Ethiopian Christians, faced again with the choice of renouncing their faith or death. Bravely they chose death, in the hope of receiving at the last the crown of life. It is difficult to comprehend what these fellow believers went through. I’ve read many accounts of martyrdom, and it is good to do so, both to be reminded, and to prepare ourselves for the challenges and choices – mostly small, but perhaps great sometimes – that we might face. Wouldn’t it perhaps seem easier to utter words of renunciation, and then seek repentance afterwards – buying time, Many early Christians facing persecution chose exactly that route, and the church had intense debates about what to do with them. It isn’t for us to judge harshly weakness in a brother or sister – we all sin, we all have our weaknesses, and few of us have been severely tested. But thank God for the brave courageous end the Coptic and Ethiopian believers made – faithful witnesses (and what a witness to our secular world) and examples to inspire and encourage us.
One of the martyrdom accounts I’ve read numerous times, and have told to me children is the account of the deaths in Carthage, in north Africa, of Perpetua and Felicity. Here is one artist’s grim image. And here is one introduction to their story.
Sadly, our churches give too little attention, in teaching or in prayers, to the plight of our brothers and sisters. And in New Zealand, more than in some countries, the voice of politicians is almost silent. Our Prime Minister heads to Saudi Arabia this week to negotiate trade deals. Will he call for religious freedom in Islamic-majority countries? Or will silence again rule – as no doubt it will around the 100th anniversary, this Friday, of the Turkish programme of mass murder of Armenian Christian citizens.