Monday, January 3, 2011

Martyrs and Prophets

Recently, the Episcopal Church put out a revised calendar of saints. It was meant to include more laypeople and people from different Christian traditions and to reflect more ways of being a Christian.

Thumbing through it, however, I notice something very interesting: the proliferation of people listed as "Prophetic Witnesses." The category is full of people who were inspired by the Spirit to challenge injustice or do some reform work. For example, the saint listed for today is a German Lutheran who revived the order of deaconesses and founded hospitals and church newspapers. What makes this "prophetic"? Because he tried to give women a special ministry in the church? A few years ago we would have called him a reformer, but I guess that's too boring.

By adding so many to that category, however, I think we're changing some very central notions of what it means to be a Christian. Firstly, we're diluting what "prophetic" means. It's being used for every little thing that seems to be a nice social/liberal agenda instead of those challenging the hierarchy. Prophets are few and far between and are widely vilified while they are alive because they challenge the culture around them and the religious and political hierarchies. How many of these prophetic witnesses can claim that?

Secondly, the abundance of "prophetic witnesses" is seeming to take precedence over martyrdom, which is the highest "rank" of feast days (for those who don't know, saint days are ranked in order of precedence- it's a complicated system). Martyrs are people who die confessing the faith on their lips, and people are still being killed for the Christian faith today (see the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria over this weekend). Martyrs are and always must be the vanguard of the church. Christ willingly walked to his death for what he was and what he preached, and so should we. We are to be living martyrs, unashamed of who we are and the God we follow. We are to be like St Stephen, caring for others, proclaiming the truth, and dying for God. Yes, even a martyr has to proclaim the truth like a prophet, but is not a "prophetic witness." The martyr's life tells us more about the truth than all the words of the "prophetic witness."

Being a "prophetic witness", however, will remind the world of the worst legacy of Christendom- telling people what to do. Instead of focusing on lives given completely to God even at death, we will focus on how much our saints told us the mind of God (something that we are quick to yell at fundamentalists for, by the way) and told us what to do. This is especially true for the clergy who stand in the halls of power yet decry privilege.

While I understand and appreciate the need for the Church to denounce injustice and oppression, we have to remember that we're not the only ones doing so. Many atheists and agnostics and people from other traditions condemn oppression and deceit and corruption, too. We're not unique at all in that regard. We're not even unique in caring for the stranger, the homeless, and the downtrodden. You don't have to be a Christian to emulate the "prophetic witnesses."

We are unique, however, in that we can live lives completely given over to Christ like the martyrs did. For whatever reason, they were murdered for their commitment to Christ. No one outside the Christian faith can do that. That is why the martyrs are front and center in the church... or at least they should be.

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