The Martyrs' Memorial in Oxford, UK
Commemorating the Execution of Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, October 16, 1555
What is at Stake?
Two bishops--Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer--chained to an iron post in Oxford, England, and with bags of gunpowder hung around their necks, were set on fire. Latimer's last words rang through the land, "We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." The year was 1555. Both bishops were killed for resisting the imposition of Roman Catholicism in England.
That people are killed because of their religious conviction continues to the present. Over four centuries after Ridley and Latimer, Christians continue to die in the Sudan, Pakistan, India and Indonesia. Joining them are the Falun Gong in China and Muslims seeking to destroy 'the great Satan,' the United States.
Following 11 September, many Americans were bewildered at the willingness of individuals to die because of their religious conviction. Yet, dying for one's convictions is an honored part of Christian history. Those who died were called martyrs. The early second century Polycarp, asked to forswear Christ, replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and in nothing hath he wronged me; and how, then, can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?" Refusing to recant, Polycarp was burned to death. (A secular martyr was Nathan Hale: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.")
Contemplating the religious martyrs spread out through history--Polycarp, Ridley and Latimer, and those who choose to die on 11 September--led me to ask myself, "Would I be willing to die for my religious beliefs?" My initial response was to back away from the question. Never having to face that kind of a challenge, I really don't know-in the abstract-what the answer would be. Then, I asked myself, "Are there any convictions so vital that life, itself, would be a secondary consideration?"
Not principles, I decided, but people come to my mind as more tangible and real. There is family, of course. Then, there are those who are part of the larger civic community, the nation. Could the community called church receive the same consideration and devotion? Thousands and thousands through history have certainly felt so.
Actually, we are always sacrificing our lives for that which is important, of supreme importance, and that which is not so important. Our nation calls us to war or we casually drink and drive, smoke and eat unhealthily. Many are the choices of self-destruction.
Personally, I do not know where the line is that renders life, in
conscious self-surrender, expendable. I do know it is there, and I truly
desire never to be in a situation where I discover where that line is.
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