Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Modern Martyrdom

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" ~ Tertullian.

The images and stories coming from Egypt this week have reminded us that martyrs are not merely people from the distant past - people are being killed because of their faith in today's world.  At the same time the worldwide Church was honoring Mary on her feast day, St. Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church (one of many churches in Egypt destroyed this week) was burning.  Here is an image of the remains of the Church's altar:

Martyrdom is not just something that happens "somewhere else" though.  One particular instance of modern martyrdom has captivated me since I first read the story a few years ago.  48 years ago today, on August 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels was killed due to actions he took because of his Christian faith, right here in the United States.   

Daniels was a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the spring of 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call for students and clergy to come to Alabama and participate in a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.  Daniels answered the call, and when he missed his bus to go back home, he stayed behind in Selma the rest of that semester to help the civil rights movement.  He returned to Cambridge for his final exams, and then went back to Alabama in July.

(An image of Daniels with two children in the house where he stayed in Alabama).

On August 14th, Daniels was arrested for protesting against a "whites only" store, and he was sent to a county jail in Haynesville, Alabama, along with several others.  After their release on August 20th, Daniels, along with a Catholic priest and two young African-Americans, went to a local store to get a soft drink.  They were met at the door by the store's owner, Tom Coleman, who was carrying a shotgun.  When Coleman aimed the gun at 17 year old Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her away, and he caught the full impact of the blast in his chest, killing him instantly.

The story of his murder was reported nationally in the immediate aftermath of his death, and once again after his killer was acquitted by an all-white Alabama jury.

At his funeral, one of his professors read from a paper that Daniels wrote and submitted on June 22, 1965, entitled "Theological Reflections on My Experience in Selma."  Quoting the Magnificat (the song of Mary), Daniels wrote:

"All of this is the raw material for living theology.  And yet in as deep a sense, from my point of view, it is the product of living theology.  The doctrines of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself.  The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown.  Darkening coals have kindled. Faith has taken wing and flown with a song in its wings. 'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior...'

I lost fear in the black belt (referring to a region in Alabama known for its dark soil) when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had truly been baptized into the Lord's Death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God."

(Quoted in the book "Outside Agitator" by Charles W. Eagles, p. 183).

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