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March 2, 2021

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Martyr stories still real, relevant

Martyrs aren’t just a thing from the distant past, Dr. John D. Roth maintains, and more recent stories of martyrdom—like those of long-ago Christians who suffered for their faith—should be told.

The Goshen College history professor related figures and other factors behind his dual assertion on Feb. 26 in the annual C. Henry Smith Peace Lecture at Bluffton University.

In addition, he outlined an effort—also involving Dr. Gerald Mast, a Bluffton professor of communication—to compile contemporary stories for a new collection in the spirit of “Martyrs Mirror,” the book of Anabaptist martyr stories that hasn’t been updated since 1685.

In his discussion of “‘Bearing Witness’ as Peacemaking,” Roth said the persecution of Christians “is not just an ancient story but a contemporary reality.” While the number of Christians in Europe and North America has steadily declined in recent decades, Christianity is growing rapidly elsewhere, he noted. Accompanying that growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America, he said, “is the painful reality of persecution and suffering for one’s faith.”

Of the more than 70 million Christians who have “lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility” since the time of Christ, about 45 million died in the 20th century, according to a 2012 report quoted by Roth from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

The report adds that at least 100,000 Christians have been martyred each year since 2000, with “a sharp upturn” in that number last year—especially in Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq, Malaysia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. “These figures suggest that, during the past decade, about 11 Christians have been killed every hour of every day,” the professor said.

Within the Anabaptist-Mennonite community, he pointed to Tigist, a young Ethiopian woman who, while not killed for her faith, was tortured and suffered a disfigured face that has been reconstructed through a series of painful plastic surgeries. “The scars are still vividly evident,” but she exudes peace, said Roth, who interviewed Tigist in Ethiopia recently while documenting instances of persecution with that country’s Meserete Kristos Church.

Reminding his audience that the Christian church is called to bear one another’s burdens, Roth stressed that stories of persecution and martyrdom must be told “because willful ignorance, or silence, or turning our heads is simply unchristian.

“The Body of Christ is bigger than our local church or our national group or our denomination,” continued Roth, the director of the Mennonite Historical Library and editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. “And if part of the Body of Christ is suffering because of its witness to Christ, then the rest of the Body must take heed.”

He suggested, too, that Christian martyr stories should be heard because they are “so unsettling”—forcing listeners to re-examine their assumptions about the nature of Christian faith—and “because the church’s very identity depends on it.”

Explaining the former point, Roth said North American Christians “have tended to domesticate the faith to turn it into something safe and tidy—an extension of our consumer tastes and preferences. Living with the stories of the martyrs should unsettle us and remind us that something of ultimate significance is at stake in our claim to be a follower of Jesus.”

He called the church a “community of memory” in addressing its identity. “We come to know who we are by telling the shared stories of God’s faithfulness, in continuity with a long narrative arc that goes all the way back to the story of creation itself,” he said.

“So the stories we tell about God’s presence in history go a long way to shaping our assumptions about what it means to be a follower of Jesus,” he added. “It may seem like a simple point, but telling the stories of the martyrs serves as a reminder that following Jesus is not merely an abstract ideal—for many people, it is a historical reality.”

Compiling stories for the “Martyrs Mirror” project is “a small collaborative initiative that’s slowly coming into focus,” said Roth, also founding director of the Goshen-based Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and secretary of the Mennonite World Conference Faith and Life Commission.

Last August, he and Mast were among 35 historians, theologians and church leaders from nine countries who gathered to explore the possibility. They decided the project will focus primarily on stories from those in the Anabaptist community who have willingly suffered or died for the cause of Christ, and “in the manner of the defenseless Christ.” Criteria also include expression of faith through believer’s baptism from within an identifiable church context, and in a way that inspires faithfulness.

Inspiring greater faithfulness and encouraging a deeper sense of connectedness and spiritual unity—both within the global Anabaptist community and among all Christians and Christian churches—are two of the group’s three goals for the project. The other is to honor the voices and experiences of the vulnerable, whose stories are otherwise often bypassed, Roth noted.

“The question of how we remember the martyrs matters especially to Mennonites perhaps because these stories have played such a prominent role in our collective identity,” he said. “But I think it should matter to all of us, regardless of your religious convictions, because issues of religion, violence and forms of witness are in the headlines every day.”

The C. Henry Smith Peace Lectureship honors the professor who taught at Bluffton for 35 years, from 1913-48, after spending 10 years at Goshen. Smith was known for his books on Mennonite history and the peace tradition of the Mennonite churches. After his death in 1948, his estate established a trust in his name that funds projects—including the lectureship—that promote the Mennonite peace message.

The lectureship is awarded each year to a faculty member from one of the Mennonite colleges, with priority given to Goshen and Bluffton faculty. The chosen faculty member must present the lecture at Bluffton and Goshen, and elsewhere as invited.