All called to witness, even at the cost of death
Why do martyrs' stories still resonate decades, even centuries after their death? A martyr is a witness to the truth, reflecting Jesus' witness to the truth. We may not face death in the jungles of Papua New Guinea like some martyrs, but we do face danger. Even as our own faith seems small, we likewise are called to witness to the truth writes Rowan Callick.
By Rowan Callick
As we greet another locked-down day, we might imagine ourselves to be looking up at Napier Waller’s wonderful New Guinea Martyrs stained glass window in St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne. We look on, as we quietly seek to make sense of our lives, and especially of suffering, of sacrifice, and of witnessing to truth. And we detect welcome signs of new life, of spring.
Twelve Australian, Papua New Guinean and British Christians who were working in a variety of ways for the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea – energetic, engaged, mostly young – were killed for their faith because they chose to stay with their flocks as the Japanese forces invaded the country rapidly in 1942.
In recent times, seven Melanesian Brothers are also coming to be considered as martyrs after their deaths.
In 2003 during civil war and government collapse in Solomon Islands, six young members of that indigenous Anglican order went to find and rescue their brother Nathaniel on the island of Guadalcanal’s Weather Coast, in the face of accounts that he had been tortured and killed by the cruel rebel leader Harold Keke. They all suffered the same fate.
While living in Papua New Guinea I accompanied John Okubo, then primate of the Japanese Anglican Church, who had been jailed and tortured by his own government because of his outspoken opposition to the war, on his poignant visit to Buna Beach in Oro province. It was the first by a Japanese Christian since the war.
There, Japanese troops had beheaded numerous people including missionaries and their children. Bishop Okubo fell on his knees and wept in that then lonely and silent spot, and never stopped expressing sorrow and asking forgiveness while he was in the country.
The martyrs’ story that resonates most with me personally is that of Vivian Redlich, a young English missionary priest who had just become engaged to May Hayman, a missionary nurse born in Adelaide. Nicknamed Merry, May was described as “sprite-like, with very bright eyes.”
Vivian scribbled a note to his dad addressed from “somewhere in the Papuan jungle”, in which he said: “I’m trying to stick whatever happens. If I don’t come out of it just rest content that I’ve tried to do my job faithfully.”
Remarkably, somehow the letter – unlike its author – survived, and the original can today be read in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Vivian’s story inspired my boss and friend, Archbishop David Hand, to go out from England to replace him, in 1946.
Across London, another of the martyrs, the 21-year-old teacher Lucien Tapiedi, from the Oro village of Taupota, is memorialised in one of the statues of 20th century martyrs above the western entrance to Westminster Abbey.
Why do these people and their stories still resonate with us, 79 years later, along with those of far more ancient martyrs?
A martyr is primarily a witness, as the word’s Greek origin relates.
It is a woman or man who tells the truth, who speaks or acts out of what they see, hear and know. This can be confronting, for those who believe otherwise, whose own truth is at variance, or who do not believe in any truth.
In chapter 12 of John’s gospel, Jesus meets with a group of Greeks, and swiftly greets them with startling assertions: The Son of Man is about to enter his glory, kernel of wheat must be buried to produce new life, love this life and you will lose it, serve Jesus by following him.
“My soul is deeply troubled”, Jesus confessed to them, but “Father bring glory to your name”. A voice like thunder responded, as had happened earlier at his baptism and transfiguration.
“When I’m lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself,” Jesus said.
Jesus begins this astonishing litany by insisting: “I tell you the truth”.
Jesus is indeed a witness. He is indeed a martyr. Yet a couple of verses on from today’s passage, we learn that despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most people in the sometimes-large circle who swirled around him, still did not truly believe in him.
In John’s extraordinary chapter six we can see Jesus’s increasing frustration, and increasing sense of loneliness, as he grapples with crowds who just don’t get it. It’s hinged off the core question: “How on earth can Jesus be the bread of life?”
Most of those fed by those two fish and five barley loaves who set out pursuing Jesus, desert him. Jesus certainly didn’t court popularity, or what we would call success. Three years of unrelenting, unsurpassed ministry and miracle-working, and just 12 mostly ill-educated followers to show for it.
Are you also going to leave?” Jesus asks the twelve at the eventual end of John’s tough, seemingly interminable, chapter six. “Lord, to whom would we go?” responds Peter, rather plaintively. And so the little team set off again on their travels around Galilee.
We too are in a testing time, to some even an apocalyptic time, a time, of course, of global pandemic. Danger stalks suburban streets, as 79 years ago it did in a more graphic manner the Papuan jungle. Our wider world, and our communities near to home, seem divided as never before. Our enemies today include untruth, rumours, self-satisfaction, pride, hard-heartedness, and fearfulness. Our own faith may seem small. But we can surely assert rhetorically with Peter, “to whom else would we go?”.
This is a season for us to grasp Jesus’ core request – follow him. We can work to do this by reviewing our own personal faith stories during our quiet locked-down days, and preparing to share them with others when the time is right. And we can do this by witnessing to Jesus, to the truth.
Jesus is of course talking about himself as that kernel or seed which must be planted in soil to sprout into new, plentiful life. We are not all asked like the New Guinea Martyrs to die as witnesses to the truth that Jesus is the bread of life. But we are all asked to follow him. We must be where he is, which is where all martyrs were and are.
They do not seek death or suffering. They seek to follow him, to be his servants. In the Papua New Guinean case, this meant staying with God’s people, where death found them.
Papua New Guinea’s plight is very different today of course, but it is still worrying and threatening to many of the nine million population. The number of COVID-19 cases has quadrupled in five months. The take up of vaccination is very low, chiefly because so many believe in social media conspiracy theories that many donated vaccines are set to expire before they can be used. Testing figures are also low. The true situation, especially in rural areas, is undocumented and unknowable.
Prime Minister James Marape, who has vowed to make PNG “the richest black Christian nation,” said recently that “it is by God’s grace that we have been spared” the worst effects of COVID-19, after earlier comparing its impact there with “many established countries”.
But this understanding of God’s grace might be placed in a context of broader need, also, in the context of severe economic stress, poor delivery of government services, and widespread corruption.
Australia’s closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea is of course an achingly beautiful land, teeming with ancient cultures and with bright people. We should ponder how we too can stay, can stick – to use Vivian’s word – with them. We can do this through purposeful daily prayer, through making the most of any personal contacts we have with Papua New Guineans, through urging our governments, our charities and other organisations, our church, to work out ways to stand with the nation, as did those 12 martyrs. This 12 includes the only Australian martyrs whom we commemorate in our church’s calendar.
Their desire was Jesus’ desire: the glorification of God. This was “the very reason I came,” Jesus said.
We can’t dictate how that will manifest itself as we follow him however. We tend to want things from Jesus, rather than to want Jesus himself. But here it is, here’s the journey laid out. It involves, inevitably, a form of death through loss, including loss of self. It involves death of self-centred dreams, of materialist aspirations, of power agendas, maybe even of some relationships.
This is not an easy path. Jesus himself was deeply troubled, his soul was torn. Martyrdom, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said, is “the ultimate witness to the truth of Christ in a way that is meaningless if God does not exist.” And what cannot be seen in the winter of death is revealed when the sun shines in the spring, the Archbishop says, and the grains of wheat burst upwards.
How would the New Guinea martyrs have rejoiced if they were here today, to witness how Japan has changed. That very nation that took their lives has become one of the greatest donors to the United Nations and to all international development agencies, and a champion of world peace. These recent Olympic Games, organised in Tokyo in the most challenging of circumstances with great numbers of volunteers cheerfully persisting in their tasks despite the emptiness of the stadiums, provided a hugely uplifting glimpse of how the world might be, in their camaraderie, friendliness and spirit. Forms of redemption can come even to nations, and to cultures.
I tell you the truth, Jesus says. And we, with our amens, all become witnesses to that truth.
I will draw everyone to myself, Jesus says. And following him, witnessing to him in a world full of falsity, sticking with him, we too seek to draw everyone to Jesus.
We can be strengthened in our work of witnessing, and in reaching beyond our present isolation, by adapting for ourselves Paul’s uplifting answer to his own question in his letter to the Romans: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?”.
Neither cruel invaders, nor roaming pathogens, nor death nor life, neither our fears for today nor worries about tomorrow, no power in the sky above or in the earth below, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Rowan Callick is an award-winning journalist who has worked in Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and Beijing. An active Anglican, he has served the Church in several capacities, including as an examining chaplain for the diocese of Melbourne. This is an edited version of a sermon he was to deliver on New Guinea Martyrs Day, 2 September, at St Peter’s Eastern Hill. Due to the COVID lockdown it was read out by the vicar at a Mass on the day.