I have always been fascinated by the Saints of the Church, sometimes with skepticism and sometimes with admiration. What is a saint? Often the perception of who truly deserves such a designation is in dispute, depending upon one’s view of the Church, of Christianity, their denomination, or just an individual’s own backstory.
Regardless, it is part of the Christian tradition for sure, especially for those of us in the Roman Catholic tradition, and we have them for just about everything and every day of the year! It is this time of the year that Catholics remember two indigenous Korean saints who died as martyrs in Korea during the mid-1800’s for their faith in Christ: Fr. Andrew Kim Taegon, the first Korean born priest, and the lay apostle, Paul Chong Hasang.
Modern Day Martyrs?
When I think of martyrdom, I confess that it is a concept I really know nothing about. Yes, we Christians in the United States throw around phrases like “suffering for Christ,” “carrying our cross,” and “turning everything over to Jesus.” Yes, for many Christians, they are in dire straights due to poverty, joblessness, family issues, and other types of concerns. However, for most Christians in the United States, we are pretty unscathed for our beliefs. That might just be my opinion, but oh well!
Why is the language of martyrdom a concern for me? Being called to minister with young adults, the current climate is a difficult terrain to navigate. Can you be Christian and vote for Hillary? Can you be Christian and vote for Trump? What do the scriptures say about poverty, war, violence and so many other issues that often cannot even be addressed with any sense of civility? Can you be Christian if you…(insert whatever it is you are in a huff about here!).
I hear that Christianity is “under siege.” I am still waiting for a trebuchet [catapult] to show up in front of my Church, although part of me thinks that would be cool. Believe me, I have my opinions and can match scripture for scripture with those in the body I disagree with. Yet, as a student of religion and culture, separating out those things that are of God and those that are of culture gets difficult.
To be honest, in my reality, regardless of who ends up in the White House, I don’t think much will change in my daily walk of life as a Christian in the United States, and I think that holds for many others as well. Again, just my opinion!
So how do we present the Gospel in our current climate? Called to evangelize and disciple young Christians in their faith development, I am aware of the responsibility assumed in presenting the Gospel. Believers are called to respond to the needs of society with the message of the Gospel, or better said, the love of Jesus. How we do that is where it gets confusing, especially for those young in their faith. But we must always hold in front of us that the message of Jesus is of hope and fulfillment.
The love of Jesus, witnessed through our actions of love and compassion for the dispossessed and marginalized, is a message of restoration, of shalom, of wholeness (not perfection). Restoration is not a returning back, for little is static in God’s creation. Restoration and shalom imply a movement forward and a restoration of relationship based upon a new shared understanding of the vastness of God.
Are we really to be martyrs?
So, what DOES it mean to be a martyr? What does Jesus mean when he says that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it”? What must we truly lose? Do we take the route of Saints Andrew Kim Taegon and Paul Chong Hasang, who truly were martyred for their faith? How do we honor the experiences of such Saints? Does God really WANT us to die to prove our faith? Is it the actual last breath we breathe, or is Jesus talking in metaphors as he often did? In this time of negative rhetoric, is this a dangerous course?
Keith Overberg, a Catholic Jesuit priest, critiqued the Christian fascination with a suffering Jesus on the cross, arguing that Jesus was not giving us a model to follow and that the cross was simply an act of violence against Jesus.
Should we be impacted by the death of Christ and the manner in which it happened? Absolutely! Should we be aware that such a death is possible for those professing Christ, as it was for our Korean saints? Yes. The message we offer young adults though, especially in these sometime contentious political times, is a message of hope navigated through the relationships we have in the world.
Christianity is an incarnational faith as handed to us by Christ, and HOPE is founded in the saving grace of Christ and the promise of shalom, of restored community, welcoming the life of BOTH a new heaven and a new earth.
Dr. James Puglisi is the Associate Director of Campus Ministry at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He received his B.A. from Allegheny College, Meadville, PA in Anthropology of Religions received his Doctor of Ministry from Catholic Theological Union in the area of Practical Theology. His doctoral writing was titled “Shalom: The Role of Truth Telling in Creating Communities of Racial Reconciliation within Institutions of Christian Higher Education.” He teaches courses in the area of migration and culture and has presented at conferences on racial reconciliation and inter-religious dialogue. He is originally from Pittsburgh, PA.