Tuesday, January 22, 2008

God Knows Their Names. Do We?

name A few years ago, archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed a communal burial tomb dating back to the 7th century. It was discovered to be the tomb of a number of Christians who had been among thousands of Jerusalem Christians who had been slaughtered when the Sassanid Persians conquered the city in AD 614. In front of the tomb, a chapel had been built and inscribed on the chapel’s floor were the words, “God knows their names.”

It was the evening of June 19, 2000 when warriors with an Islamic group, Laskar Jihad, descended on the quiet little Christian village of Duma on the Indonesian island of Halmahera under the cover of darkness armed with high-powered weapons. Before the night was through, 155 defenceless men, women and children were ruthlessly butchered.

A few days after the massacre, I received a list of those slain. Each of the slain was assigned a number, followed by their name. Among the dead was Alfons Leledana, a teacher and the village head, Ekliopas Sumtaki. Husbands and wives were killed together. Others died alone. Some of their bodies were so badly mutilated that a positive identification was impossible. Their entry on the list reads depressingly, “A child (no other details)”; “a women (no other details). Some are lumped together as a group and simply given a number to identify them: “49,50,51,52,53,54,55 Females (no other details).”

Their names were unknown and cannot be remembered. We do not know who they are. But God knows their names.

From the early days of the church it became the practice to deliberately remember those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for Christ. To remember those whose testimony for Christ

As early as AD 250, the early church father Cyprian encouraged the churches to set aside the day in which a martyr was killed to remember his/her courage and to thank God for his/her faithful witness. This is still the practice among some liturgical churches, although even there, they typically only remember those who have been killed several centuries ago.

Songs were to be sung in their memory. They kept careful records of their last words in order to build up the faith of the rest of the church. They made sure that others knew how God had sustained them to the end.

The early church knew that God knew the names of the martyrs but they wanted to be sure that the church knew as well.

Throughout the centuries, this respect for those who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice continued. The early church historian Eusebius carefully documented the names and events of the martyrs during the first three centuries of the church as a testament to the gracious act of God in sustaining his people. To remember the martyrs was a means of expressing one’s gratitude and praise to God for the great things that He had done.

In later years, John Foxe wrote his Book of Martyrs for the same reason. Eventually there came a time in the English speaking world that a home was not considered to be Christian unless it openly displayed a Bible and copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It was read in schools and commonly referred to from the pulpit.

Amoung the Anabaptists, the book Martyrs Mirror gained a similar degree of respect, recounting the courageous faith of those who were willing to die rather than disobey their conscience before God.

We named church buildings, hospitals, colleges and universities after them.

And the church, we KNEW their names. We told their stories to our children. And we knew that persecution was part of what it meant to be a follower of Christ.

But somewhere it changed.

I don’t know when. I don’t know why.

But something changed. And while the persecution of Christians not only continued but actually increased, the attitude of the church shifted from honouring the names of the martyrs to relegating martyrdom and persecution to the dusty shelves of history.

We stopped telling their stories. We stopped recording their testimonies. We no longer cared what their last words were.

Their voices grew silent. We stopped listening. And the sacrifices went unnoticed. The dates of their martyrdom went unmarked.

Their names went beyond being forgotten. In most cases, we never actually heard their names in the first place.

God knew their names, but we no longer did.

And we did not even know that we did not know their names.

In the past several years, in more than forty nations worldwide, untold numbers of Christians were martyred because of their identity or witness as a follower of Jesus Christ. They come from every theological background. Some are church leaders and evangelists. Most are ordinary men, women and children whose only crime was their faith in Christ. And despite living in a day when email, the Internet, and satellite telephones can provide us with up-to-date information on incidents of persecution within days (and even hours) after the event, few Canadian Christians could provide the name of even one of them. Even fewer seem to think that they need to do something on their behalf.

And whereas the early church thanked God for the privilege of suffering for Him, we thank God for the privilege of not suffering for Him. Whereas Jesus said, “Blessed are the persecuted,” we say, “Blessed are we who are not persecuted.”

When the founder of The Voice of the Martyrs was first imprisoned by the communists in Romania on February 29, 1948, he was locked in a solitary cell and stripped of his name. No longer was he to be publicly called “Richard Wurmbrand.” Instead, he was assigned a new name "Vasili Georgescu" so that no one would know who he was. In effect, Richard Wurmbrand vanished without a trace. The hope was that people would eventually forget who he was.

Satan’s strategy has remained unchanged. It is still his desire to keep the names of God’s persecuted children a secret. He rejoices when they suffer alone, forgotten, unprayed for, and uncared for.

This is our calling - to confound the strategy of the enemy by ensuring that they are not.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Glenn for reminding us of our common heritage. Too many of us in the western protestant church are happy to have fellowship in 'space' (the now) but forget that the Body of Christ is alive in 'time' as well. Those who have gone before are still part of the living Body of Christ - they have not forgotten us (Rev 6:9, 8-3-4) let us not forget them.

My wife & I have been saddened recently during several sermons in our church where the preacher has illustrated sermon points using worldly role models and even particular "good people" of another religion. What about our own heros of the faith? (whether liturgically designated as 'Saints' or not.) I've asked the question twice now - regrettably the question has not been answered.

My guess is that its (a) ignorance and/or (b) fear of looking too much like a Roman Catholic.

Melbourne Australia

mymylo said...

God Knows Their Names. Do We?

Excellent, excellent artaicle , Glenn. I wish I could read it to all our church.

Please keep on reminding us not to give up trying to raise awareness.

Victoria, BC