Just twenty-four hours after the breaking news of the tragic shooting of nine people at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, America is responding – like we always do. Reactions are all across the board. Some are saying that America will not respond enough: if this were a foreigner attacking us we would be at war. Some are angry that when white people go on killing sprees we usually label it as a mental disorder instead of racism. And some – as notable as Fox’s “Fox and Friends” – are calling it an attack on faith and labeling the nine as martyrs, and declaring this an attack on Christianity. And it is on this point that I want to remain.
Last week, the story of Lee Rickman, a staff member at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, NC made minor news reports. While on a mission trip to Jamaica there was a freakish accident where a tree branch fell and killed Rickman and injured another teacher. Was Rickman a martyr? Were these nine in Charleston martyrs because they were shot during a Bible study?
A martyr is someone who dies because of their faith. Merriam-Webster gives this full definition:
n: a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion
An undeniable story of martyrdom of which we are all aware is that of Cassie Bernell, the student at Columbine High School who was radically saved during a weekend retreat with her youth group and became a dynamic witness at her school. When Eric Harris and Dylan Kelbold burst into the library that morning, they asked her to her face, “Do you believe in God?” and after a pause, knowing it would cost her her life, she said, “Yes, I believe in God”. Because of that answer, she was shot and killed. Cassie’s brother found Philippians 3.10-11 hand written on her desk, with the simple question written in response, “Is your Jesus worth dying for?”. This is a martyr: when someone confronts another because of his faith, and the faithful one chooses death in order to not deny their faith.
If someone is involved in a tragic accident while on the mission field or in service to God, this is not a martyr. If someone contracts a disease or is even killed because of other motives on the mission field or in service to God, this is not a martyr. Perhaps these people would be willing to die for their faith, but that is just simply not the catalyst for their deaths. Why does this matter? It matters because there is a special role that martyrs play in eternity:
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
– Rev 6.9-10
Those who have been martyred have a special place in awaiting the End of the Age, underneath of the altar of Heaven, eagerly anticipating the day that their deaths would be avenged. Jesus is the eternal judge and will render to every single person according to His deeds. We, as Christians, are commanded to not take revenge because it is God’s place to take vengeance against sin.
‘Vengeance is Mine, and retribution,
In due time their foot will slip;
For the day of their calamity is near,
And the impending things are hastening upon them.’
– Deut 32.35
And thus, we can endure, even to the point of death, trusting that God will avenge our suffering in the end. But only those who suffered the ultimate price – physical death – will have that special place before the throne awaiting the final day. Revelation also teaches that those who were martyred will play a substantial role of reigning during the Thousand Years:
Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.
– Rev 20.4-5
Revelation is full of prophecy that is yet unclear as to how it will occur, but this passage is clear that there will be more than one resurrection and the first resurrection is specifically for those who were martyred.
Now, let us return to the Charleston shooting. It is reported that while he was murdering these nine people, Dylan Roof said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.” His Facebook profile also featured a photo of him wearing a jacket with patches of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the white-ruled colony of Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. These markers reveal that this terrible tragedy was the result of a hate crime – racism. Not faith. If it were the case that Dylan targeted these people and gave them an option to live by denying Jesus, then they would be martyrs. Otherwise, they are victims of a terrible, racist agenda.
It is not my intention to minimize the tragedy here. Racism is a very serious problem in our country, and people are being targeted and murdered on both sides for no reason. Roof deserves every level of punishment that our government can serve. But let us be careful not to blur the lines of what happened and apply extra levels of hatred, discrimination and expectation on the situation. Your circumstances do not make you a martyr, unless you die because of your witness for Christ. An accident, a disease, a murder for other reason are a tragedy, but they are not martyrdom. Let us reflect on the measures of faith that those who gave their all have left for us to remember. Let us follow in their footsteps, being willing to suffer to the point of death, and let us proclaim Christ boldly.