A Noble Company of Martyrs
The recent murders of young Christians in American schools and churches have brought deep and many-hued sorrows to those who love the slain, and prayers for their comfort are being offered in all places. Lest we forget, however—in our empathy, and encouraged by an infidel media’s preoccupation with the horrors of bloodshed and human misery—if our faith is true, these are places of resounding victory, places where evil, frustrated to madness by the joy and hope in which believers live, lost the cynical composure with which it usually works among us, showed its true face, and in its rage, shed the seed of the church and sent many souls leaping to heaven. These are times for tears, to be sure, but even more for trumpets and drums, of loud shouts of praise, and of unapologetic rejoicing.
I have heard that some need prayers because of deep regret that it was by their encouragement one of the slain came to the place where he or she met death. But let us be frank, these are not Christian regrets, and they must be put aside. What answered prayer shall bring to these is not the ability to forget that they were thus responsible, or some mitigation of some perceived guilt, but rather the clarity that they are more like the friends of the bride or the bridegroom who have brought the betrothed to the place where the vows that bound them to their Lord—vows they made voluntarily, delivering their bodies and souls to him—were consummated. No less an honor than this.
The slaying in the Baptist church brought to my own mind the ancient account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the saintly old bishop of Smyrna. After he finally expired—it didn’t prove easy to do him in—and his body—hateful, and an embarrassment, to evil spirits and men—had been destroyed as much as circumstances allowed, his friends rushed in to claim what remained, “more precious than the finest jewels,” to enrich “in a suitable place” their own worship. For many years this sounded strange to my Protestant ears. Honoring the bodies of our dead is something we all do, but when they become aids to worship, it is one small step from idolatry. I still believe this true, but also that there is another truth that stands beside it. If the bodies and blood of Christians are holy, are not their remains emblematic of that holiness? Not that they are, of course, anything “in themselves” but dust. We are not concerned, however, with mere dust, but with what dust is when it becomes the stuff of the formation, redemption, and resurrection of man. The body is never itself waste, but is always, even in its most reduced and scattered state, the object of the constituting, animating, and transforming power of God.
Do Baptists believe this? Most that I know do. If this is the case, is the place where these Christians fell a mere meeting house, as they taught me was when I was a boy? Well, the answer to this, I suppose, is whether the bodies of Christians, which are also vessels of the Holy Spirit, are mere meeting houses between God and man. My answer to this would be—meeting houses, yes, but mere, no. The unmistakable confirmation of the Incarnation, and the Resurrection that followed it, is that holiness (as we should have been taught by the Old Covenant) attaches to places, and particular places are in order of degree particularly holy. Are the fabrics into which the blood, the symbols of their lives, ran, mere carpet and cotton, now to be cleansed as if this were common defilement? Is the church building itself what it was before its children died there, or something higher and more important, of more intense participation, by the election of God, in the life of the Spirit than it was before? Can the sanctuary simply be torn down now and built over when something larger is needed? Can the places where saints fell go unmarked? Might one instead recognize with signs made with one’s own body that no less than the body of Christ was made manifest in this place?
I leave these questions to my Baptist friends, but think it important that they think about them. Doing it may bring them closer to the disciples of Polycarp, and so also to many of their Catholic brothers. God grant that we do not err in one of the two ways characteristic of our religious parties. The Catholic should understand and fear the danger of idolatry, giving no undue honor to dust, ashes, stone, plaster, and paint—or even to just and holy men. The Protestant should understand that the exultant participation of God in the matter that he made, perfect in the Incarnation of the Just and Holy Man, is and always has been associative, flowing from the higher to the lower, and exalting all to which it flows in accordance with the nature that receives it. It is demonic apprehension of this knowledge that kindled the grace-starved anger that killed their brothers. It is also the foundation of the honor recently bestowed upon them and the tabernacle where they call upon the Spirit of God.
—S. M. Hutchens, for the Editors
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“A Noble Company of Martyrs” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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