Maritime Center, Linthicum Heights, MD
February 5, 2014
Traditionally the church has talked about two kinds of martyrs – white martyrs and red ones. Red martyrs shed blood for claiming their faith, like Perpetua and Paul, or because of the challenge that they’ve offered to the principalities and powers of this world – like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. White martyrs are remarkable witnesses to the way of Jesus, who give their lives sacrificially, but more often die in their beds – people like Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu (and may he live many more years!). The Celts saw white martyrs as those who left home and family behind to follow Jesus on the road – like Colomba, who founded Iona, or the monks who wandered the seas in little leather boats, or the ones who went to Scandinavia. There’s also an old Irish tradition about glasmartres (translated either as a green martyr or a blue martyr), who live radically ascetic lives focused on repentance. The color may have something to do with the pallor of somebody who has been fasting, or the sense that the ascetic went out into the green and wild lands, or perhaps in the Irish context, the color of the sea that surrounded so many of their cells and hermitages.
The Japanese martyrs we remember today were the red sort, persecuted, tortured, and executed for being Christians. What we know of the Christian presence in Japan began with Francis Xavier in 1549, the same year the first Book of Common Prayer was published in England. Francis Xavier stayed only three years, but left a Jesuit team in place and probably two thousand Christians. The Portuguese Jesuit mission continued to gain converts, as well as support from the ruling shogun, up into the 1580s. The next shogun, under pressure from Buddhist clergy, ordered the Jesuits to leave, but he didn’t push them all out. Things got worse when a group of Spanish Franciscans showed up in the 1590s and began to compete for converts, and charge the Jesuits with being the advance wave of Portugal’s intent to conquer Japan. The shogun executed the first 26 of the Christians we remember today, and ordered all the Jesuits out.
In 1600 a Dutch ship limped into a Japanese port with one William Adams, on whose story the historical novel Shogun is based. He was the ship’s English navigator, and in addition to teaching the shogun about shipbuilding and mathematics, he explained the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity, and told him about the growing expulsion of Roman Catholics from several European countries. I want to point to the reality that an old world religious conflict was pretty handily exported to Japan, and our own religious history is stained by that in the same way the history of slavery has stained this nation.
The shogun understood the competition among the religious orders as a threat to his territory, rightly so, and decided to remove all the Roman Catholics. Those who didn’t leave were persecuted, tortured, crucified, and encouraged to recant their faith under pain of death. The executions finally culminated in 1637, which was the last public trace of Christianity until Japan reopened to the West in the 1850s. Yet when westerners returned, thousands of underground Christians emerged, having passed down their faith from generation to generation without benefit of clergy or missionaries.
That inherited Christianity can be seen as the result of the memory of those red martyrs and the quiet witness of ten generations. It’s an example of another kind of martyrdom – the patient endurance of people of faith, caring quietly for their neighbors, proclaiming the good news of God’s love in deed when the explicit word is not possible.
Something similar happened in China during the Cultural Revolution. It was a much shorter period, but the work of missionaries that started in the late 1800s grew and flourished during the intense and violent persecutions under Chairman Mao. An Anglican, Roland Allen, had gone to China at the end of the 19th century with the sense that he should convey the scriptures and the sacraments, and then get out of the way. He insisted that it was Paul’s way of witnessing, and that the good news requires freedom to take root in new soil and emerge as a vine that’s able to thrive in that particular part of the garden.
We still live with the painful consequences culturally bound forms or witness – among Native Americans as well as in other parts of the globe. Japan lives with that struggle to this day. Christians represent less than one percent of the population.
People who have received the witness of earlier Christians in one particular form often assume that that is the only possible or correct way of expressing their faith. The Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Japanese Anglican Church) is much tied to traditional ways of worship – ways that do not easily communicate across the chasm between the church and society. We live in many places here with the same challenges – hymns that don’t connect with popular cultural idioms, tendencies in some places to overly directive ways of governing, or an insistence that Sunday morning worship is the only proper witness of the church.
We are all called into martyrdom. That’s part of the baptismal promises. That martyrdom is about being and making a witness. But what sort of martyrdom are we being invited into? What kind of life are we supposed to lose, what self-denial, what cross are we to pick up? In this season of the church’s history, and in the post-Christian context many of us live in, I believe we’re being invited to be blue martyrs.
I met one on Sunday – and the first sign of it was the blue hair. I met her in the context of church, though it certainly wasn’t in a building you’d call a church. She had gathered a sizeable group of people and their canine companions to give thanks, to recognize and make real the light we can be in the world, and to make Eucharist. I thought about Paul’s communities, and the ones Roland Allen started, and wondered about the forms and expectations that limit our imaginations. Something like that community I joined kept the Christ light burning in Japan for 250 years. And that long and quiet tradition has given the NSKK a strong countercultural witness in caring for earthquake victims, disabled children, and social outcasts.
That community of blue martyrs is called Bushwick Abbey. It’s in a gritty part of Brooklyn, meets in a music venue at noon which is late enough to sleep in or sober up or both. The sign outside says, “church that doesn’t suck.” In the two months of its existence, the experiment has already produced a community of 25. On Sunday morning besides me, there was a gray-haired couple sitting at the bar in the back, and a boy of about 10 who I think was the priest’s son, but everyone else were young adults – two-thirds of them young men. Several had come for the first or second time, and clearly a deeply caring community is developing. The music was led by a creative keyboardist, two guitars and a drummer, and they’ve written and adapted music and lyrics to fit this context. We sang their particular version of the New Zealand Lord’s Prayer (the one that goes “Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver”), and during coffee hour, beer was also offered.
Something like this community can light fires all around us. It can fan embers into flame that will change the world. A blue martyr community like this one has partnered with others in repentance, turning away from limited views about what makes church. It is an ascetic existence. What do you believe is the essence of Christian witness? How can we become a community of martyrs, either blue or white, or if called to it, even red ones? What will we let go of, in order to raise high the Christ-light?