Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


When Christ calls a man, he bids that man to come and die.

-- World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The latest issue of Christianity Today features a short article (less than a page long) on the martyrdom last April of three Christians in Malatya, Turkey. German missionary Tilmann Geske, local pastor Necati Aydin, and former Muslim Ugur Yuksel were assaulted, tortured, and murdered by a group of Muslims. The article, interspersed with several verses of Scripture about the necessity of a Christian’s suffering for his faith, was well written and inspiring.

Nonetheless, there’s one problem I have with it. It cleaned up the facts of exactly what happened in the death of these men. The article says that they were tied to chairs, “stabbed…slowly and deliberately”, and that then their throats were slit. This is all true, but the most gruesome details were left out. Here they are, for those with the stomach for them:

[Details of the torture–
* Tilman was stabbed 156 times, Necati 99 times and Ugur’s stabs were too numerous to count. They were disemboweled, and their intestines sliced up in front of their eyes. They were emasculated and watched as those body parts were destroyed. Fingers were chopped off, their noses and mouths and anuses were sliced open. Possibly the worst part was watching as their brothers were likewise tortured. Finally, their throats were sliced from ear to ear, heads practically decapitated.]

A fair bit more than what CT presented, isn’t it? The question I’m asking is this – why leave out the details? They would offend some, certainly. And maybe the reason why CT’s writer (whose name is not with the article) would leave out the details is the same reason I would signal my reader in advance that they are about to read something that not all can handle. But why not signal the reader just as I did? It could just be that the writer was attempting to present the facts in a narrative fashion, and including such details would have seemed out of place. I suspect, however, that something else is going on here.

Let’s be frank here. Most American Evangelicals are pansies. We walk into our Christian Junk Stores and the hallucinogenic smell of perfumed satchels with Scripture verses emblazoned on them waft into our nostrils while we fill up our baskets with the latest cheesy Christian t-shirts and plastic inspirational dust catchers. Somehow, we aren’t any holier for all of it, and I can’t help but think that it does more to separate us from the heart of our faith than anything.

On the other hand, we live in an extremely violent culture. I’m more amazed each day at the lengths that TV shows will go to as they push the edges of accepted decency. This is especially true on the 24 hour a day news channels, where they seem to compete constantly over who can create the greatest sense of excitement and thereby deceive you into believing that what they are really presenting to you is “news”. Every time they say, “What we are about to show you may offend some,” they know there ratings are about to go up, which is really what it’s all about for them.

Christians watch these shows, and so violence is nothing new for them. And it’s also true with movies. I’d dare say most Evangelicals have seen Braveheart, and so, while Wallace’s torture and death scene was not very explicit, the rest of the movie was. On top of this, most people probably know something of the historic practice of drawing and quartering. And for those who haven’t seen Braveheart, most certainly have seen Mel Gibson’s more recent film, The Passion of the Christ.

This leads us back to the history of martyrdom in the church. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in the Evangelical church, I would think, would know something about martyrdom. Sadly, the presentations I’ve met with having grown up in the church have often been sanitized. Hearing about those who were martyred generally involves the following: the person is captured and killed, end of story. To mention that they were tortured was an extra step that was usually left out. But, once again, those who are martyred usually suffer much, much more.

And so I see the church’s treatment of martyrdom, and of violence in general, to be somewhat contradictory. We’ll watch it on TV or in the movies, where we’re able to view it from a distance. We can remain uninvolved and unaffected. This way, we can say we’re addressing it without there being any cost to us.

But the heart of the Christian faith is entirely different than what we often treat it as being. N. T. Wright addresses this in his book What Saint Paul Really Said:

It is an obvious truism to say that the cross stands at the heart of Paul’s whole theology… We are in danger of being lulled by this constant refrain [of the importance of the cross] into insensibility to what Paul was actually saying – and, equally importantly, was heard to be saying in the world of his day. Crucifixes regularly appear as jewellery in today’s post- Christian Western world, and the wearers are often blissfully unaware that their pretty ornament depicts the ancient equivalent, all in one, of the hangman’s noose, the electric chair, the thumbscrew, and the rack. Or, to be more precise, something which combined all four but went far beyond them; crucifixion was such an utterly horrible thing that the very word was usually avoided in polite Roman society. Every time Paul spoke of it – especially when he spoke in the same breath of salvation, love, grace and freedom – he and his hearers must have been conscious of the slap in the face thereby administered to their normal expectations and sensibilities. Somehow, we need to remind ourselves of this every time Paul mentions Jesus’ death, especially the mode of that death.

Paul, as did the other writers of Scripture, recognized that there are far more important questions than whether or not our sensibilities are offended. The more I’ve read Scripture over the past couple of years, the more it has occurred to me how often the faithful men and women of Scripture went out of their way to offend people. Certainly, it was never being offensive simply to offend, or as an attempt to control and manipulate others (say, in the way the marketers of Christian merchandise attempt to do). Rather, it was to bring to light the evils of sin and to lead to salvation. Nonetheless, they were offensive, and Scripture presents this as being something worth doing at times in order to accomplish God’s will. As Paul himself tells us in 1 Corinthians, the cross itself is an offense.

In American Christianity, we have a hard time imagining that following Christ could include such commitment or result in so gruesome a death. But for those who through the centuries have sought to obey God’s word, this has often been their end. One of the most violent deaths in the history of the church that I know of is that of the Scottish Covenanter martyr, David Hackston. Hackston stood with the Covenanters and fought against the king’s dragoons during the Killing Times of the 17th century. After a time of resistance, he was captured and carried to Edinburgh, where he received his sentence:

That his body be drawn backward on a hurdle to the Cross of Edinburgh; that there be a high scaffold erected a little above the cross, where in the first place his right hand is to be struck off, and after some time his left hand; that he is to be hanged up and cut down alive, his bowels to be taken out, and his heart to be shown by the hangman to the people; then his heart and his bowels to be burned in a fire prepared for that purpose on the scaffold; that afterward his head be cut off, and his body divided into four quarter, his head to be fixed on the Netherbow, one of his quarters with both his hands to be affixed at St. Andrews, another quarter at Glasgow, a third at Leith, a fourth at Burntisland; that none presume to be in mourning for him, nor any coffin brought; that no person be suffered to be on the scaffold with him save the two ballies, the executioner and his servants; that he be allowed to pray to God almighty, but not to speak to the people; that the heads of [Richard] Cameron and [John] Fowler be affixed on the Netherbow; that Hackston’s and Cameron’s heads be affixed on higher poles than the rest.

Jock Purves, from whose book Fair Sunshine I am taking this account, goes on to describe the execution:

Already dying from his ghastly wounds, he was led away to suffer. While great crowds looked on, there was done upon him by the hangman a gross, painful barbarity not mentioned in his sentence. Then he endured with firmness and patience the cutting off of his hands, but, the hangman having taken such a long time to hack off his right hand, he asked that his left hand might be taken off at the joint, which was done. With a pulley he was then pulled to the top of the gallows, and when choked a little was let down alive. The hangman then with a sharp knife opened his breast, and putting in his hand pulled out his heart. It fell upon the scaffold and moved there. The hangman picked it up on the point of his knife, and, carrying it around the scaffold, he showed it to the people saying, ‘Here is the heart of a traitor.’ Patrick Walker says that it fluttered upon the knife. The rest of the sentence was duly carried out. The free grace of God was glorified in David Hackston, so that whoever thinks of him must think of his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, too.

The most amazing thing is why the Covenanters died. They opposed the King’s attempts to require certain worship practices and a certain form of government in the church. These died horrible deaths over Sunday worship and church government, and we have a hard time getting out of bed to go to church anywhere on Sunday morning. We are a sad lot.

But are the details in describing a martyrdom really necessary? Certainly, not every detail needs to always be shared. Even in Purves’ account, he speaks of a “barbarity” that he declines to mention more specifically. And one can also either grow numb to the violence through excessive exposure, such as is caused by violent entertainment, or simply grow to delight in it, which is a horrible thing in itself. Nonetheless, to always refuse to speak of the details is to ignore the fact that following Christ is to “participate in his sufferings”. Christ suffered because there is sin in this world, and we will suffer in some small measure in Christ’s name for the same reason. The details remind us that we are still in a sinful world, a world that is yet to reach the fullness of redemption. We can rest assured, however, that this redemption will come, as it was accomplished through the suffering of the God-Man, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Blogger William Chad Newsom said...

Good post. Having written a historical novel about a martyr, I am sympathetic to the concerns of appropriate portrayal (my book as you know was written for children) while at the same time communicating the horror of the execution.

12:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home