Sunday, February 6, 2011

The cost of witness to Christ—UPDATED

In a prison cell in Kabul, a man named Sayed Mussa awaits trial for apostasy, as he has for nine months. Mussa was arrested after videotapes showed him among other Afghans praying at a private Christian baptism. At a previous jail cell, Mussa had been beaten with sticks by a guard, and assaulted and raped by two inmates at the encouragement of Taliban prisoners.

Afghanistan's new US-sponsored constitution is supposed to protect freedom of religion. However, a loophole allows judges to apply Shariah, Islamic law, in cases of conversion; under a fundamentalist interpretation, that can mean death by hanging for Mussa. But even if he's released to rejoin his wife and children, who fled to Pakistan for their safety, he is still a martyr.

On January 29, there was a Walk for Life in San Francisco. Unlike the March in Washington DC the previous Monday, the counter-protest was well-attended (in San Francisco you would expect different?). However, a significant chunk of the opposition weren't there so much to support "choice" as they were to heckle the pro-life demonstrators.

"Louisa" from Catholic Phoenix reports "people screaming in my face. 'Have you even read a science book before? Do you even BELIEVE in science? You believe the Bible is real? Have you ever read a book before? … that is why ALL CHRISTIANS ARE FASCISTS!'"

I was surrounded by posters and placards that had nothing to do with abortion. Their messages were anti-religion and anti-establishment. These people were looking for a fight, carrying posters making fun of the sex scandals involving Catholic priests and defiled images of our Holy Father, John Paul II. … A few mixed in with the pro-life marchers and screamed at us. They were two girls younger than me. Others taunted us with megaphones announcing a "poll of our ignorance". There was a girl carrying a black cross, cross-dressers with "halos" and crosses painted on their faces, and the most creative group, the "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence."

Many of us would be hesitant to compare the indignities suffered by the marchers to the assaults and overhanging death sentence afflicting Mussa. Yet they too are martyrs.

Martyr is taken from the Greek μρτυς (mártus), meaning "witness" in the legal and historical senses, and extrapolated into an ethical sense. In the context of the New Testament, the term is used almost solely in the legal and historical senses, of people who have seen the events and facts and who testify to their truth.

Yet the sense in which we commonly use it now—one who dies at the hands of others for his faith in Christ—has its nucleus in Acts 22:20: "And when the blood of Stephen your witness [martyros] was shed, I was also standing by and approving" (loc. cit., RSV) ….

In every culture known, there was always a penalty for those who swore falsely to things that weren't true. To stand as a witness, then, has always meant to put your freedom, your possessions and even your life on the line, that you back your testimony with everything you have and everything you are. Even in lesser matters, we call on each other to "put your money where your mouth is," to "walk the talk", to back our words with acts.

At no point in the Gospels are we promised that discipleship in Christ will be all beer and skittles. Jesus directly tells his disciples, at Matthew 10:38-42,[1] that "he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." And again, Jesus tells the disciples that,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. … Remember the words that I said to you, "A servant is not greater than his master." If they persecuted me, they will persecute you …. They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me.[2]

Bearing witness to Christ also means suffering for the nominal Christians throughout history who failed, in often spectacularly scandalous ways, to live up to the demands of discipleship. It should be no surprise that we Catholics get events like the predator priest scandals, Galileo, the Spanish Inquisition and Alexander VI thrown back into our faces; people who hate what we stand for will always look to such things as "proof" that they are justified in their hatred.

Again, though, it comes back to "walking the talk". The most effective form of witness has always been, and will always be, living authentic Christian discipleship. That means setting others' needs before your own, even when doing so causes difficulties. That means avoiding both sin and, when possible, its near occasion.

Even the simplest act of kindness to a stranger can be a revolutionary act, a cause of dissention and opposition. Why? Because it has the potential to cast an indirect judgment on others, to underscore and illuminate their hard-heartedness. A mother who chooses to give birth to a child diagnosed in the womb with Down's syndrome is as much a witness to Christ as is Sayed Mussa in his jail cell.

True faith in Christ isn't a word but an act, an act that costs. How much are you willing to pay to call yourself a disciple of Christ? It's easy to say you would die for Christ, but are you willing to do without for Christ as well?

Update: February 19, 2011
According to an email passed on to Matt Archbold at Creative Minority Report from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Sayed Mussa's prosecution has been put on hold, and there's a reasonable possibility that, in a few weeks, he will be allowed to seek asylum in another country, perhaps with his family in Pakistan. It's never too early to say, "Laudetur Iesus Christus!" Nevertheless, continue to pray for him until his situation is resolved.

[1] Cf. Mt 16:24-25, Mk 8:34-35, Lk 14:25-27, Jn 12:25.
[2] Jn 15:18, 20; 16:2-3.