Word by Charles Baker
Gird Your Loins: On Rebellion and Christian Martyrdom (1 of 3)
//Then Job answered the Lord: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth.” Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me.”// – Job 40:3-4,6-7
WE LIVE IN A tumultuous age; to some, this is an age of cataclysm and an age of the fulfillment of prophecy; to others, it’s merely the newest iteration of a cycle of violence deeply embedded in human history; and to others still it is just a chance to scroll obliviously through the dankest of memes, awash in the blissful ignorance of Internet-experience-curation. Clearly, among these groups, roughly seventeen out of every twenty people belong to the latter.
This spring, President Trump unveiled the newest phase of his federal immigration policy, aimed toward deterring illegal border crossings: mandatory federal prosecution of any and all persons crossing into the United States illegally, including parents with small children, effectively separating these families in order to properly detain and process adult offenders. It does not take a child psychologist to determine that forcibly separating a small child, including children as young as 18-months old, from their parents causes severe trauma and serves as a catalyst for a host of psychological/behavioral disorders in adolescence and adulthood.
Likewise, it does not take a priest or any other cleric of any religion to determine that such an action is patently evil. It is worth noting that a sizeable number of families crossing into the United States are asylum seekers fleeing from violence- and poverty-torn countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras (among others); and such an action, far from being a harmless deterrent, compounds trauma upon trauma with an ruthless lack of both empathy and appreciation for the universal human condition. As a Catholic, the parallels between the experience of these refugees and the story of the Flight into Egypt from the Gospel of Matthew resound in my head like a gong, but I will save that analysis for another time. Suffice it to say that these days and times call for Christians to respond with direct action; the hands of the Body of Christ have work to do; yet, by and large, the average Christian in America seems either unwilling or unable to engage the evils and excesses of this modern neoliberal machine currently under the control of the Republican Party; meanwhile those who do take moral issue with the actions of this administration seem to behave like Job in the Old Testament: quick to complain, but too clouded by fear to see the right course and seize upon it.
What adds to the disappointment is that the history of Christianity is written in the blood of men, women, and even children who could do nothing else than, through word and deed, to proclaim fearlessly the Gospel of Jesus Christ before a temporal power that would seek to suppress and destroy it. These people, who took Christ’s words to heart and offered the singular greatest expression of love in the willing sacrifice of their lives, are given the honorable title of ‘martyr.’ The word comes from the Greek, meaning ‘witness.’ By ‘witness,’ we mean that the arc of their lives gives testimony to the Truth of the Gospel, as a witness gives testimony in court. However, as history would tend to show, the word ‘martyr’ could just as easily be defined as ‘rebel.’ Since references to Nazi Germany are the cool thing these days, and since that era gave Christianity so many martyrs to celebrate, I offer an example of Christian martyrdom expressed as both a rebellion and a complete gift of the self: Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident and spy, and (somewhat extraneously) a major inspiration for the pastoral and political work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States during the 1950’s and 60’s. Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Nazi ideology and rebellion against its rule coincides almost perfectly with Nazism’s rise to power in Germany. Within days of Hitler’s installation as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a sermon via radio broadcast, branding the new führer as a verführer (‘seducer’) before having his broadcast terminated mid-sentence, presumably by the Nazis though it was never proven. Following this, Bonhoeffer took to the streets as well as to the pulpit, condemning Nazism and calling upon German Christians to stand firm in the Gospel and resist. He was especially vocal of the Nazi’s policies of euthanasia and the infamous ‘Jewish Question;’ Bonhoeffer made it a point to stress in his sermons and writings God’s faithfulness in Israel as His chosen people.
Ultimately, Bonhoeffer became involved with the Abwehr conspirators, and through association with them was arrested and ultimately sentenced to be hanged, at a drumhead court martial, for involvement in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Years earlier, in his 1937 book The Cost of Discipleship, a theological analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer wrote about a distinction between ‘cheap’ and ‘costly grace.’ It is probably the most-often quoted part of the book.
Cheap grace is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to cheap grace, costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Reading these words in the context of his work against the Nazis, the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers itself as a testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and becomes a witness, a ‘martyr’ to the greatest commandments of Jesus Christ, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Rev. Bonhoeffer also offers us a model for a living faith, a faith incarnate and alive through good works (James 2:17). Furthermore, his life and his death present a model of Christian martyrdom that is in communion with a spirit of nonviolent rebellion against the evils of the era. I said at the beginning that we live in a tumultuous age. Christians who recognize the present immigration enforcement policy of the United States to be evil must awaken from their slumber and do more than complain on social media. American Catholics in particular should reflect more rhetoric and pastoral teaching coming out of the Vatican regarding immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, and be open to amending their personal politics when it comes into conflict with Catholic Social Teaching and Tradition. Not all are called to go to the gallows; Jesus does not give everyone the same yoke. But my fellow Catholics and Christians must know that the Son of the God of Life has a yoke for all of us; and if we desire the grace and salvation offered by Him, we must bow our heads and take it up. The blood of our brothers is already crying out to Him from the ground (Genesis 4:10). There is no more time to waste. The suffering of the poor is God’s question to us; and we must gird up our loins and answer, with actions and not with mere words.
//And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.// – Luke 9:23-26