The persecution and martyrdom of Christians is as old as my namesake and as fresh as the nightly newscast.”
Normally, this hodgepodge of editorial musings wouldn’t surface until the spring. Maybe it’s the confusion of weather patterns that has birthed it sooner. Or maybe it’s the absence of any coherent train of thought. Whatever the reason, here it is.
It’s not how you want your hometown to make headlines.
For all but six of my 60 plus years, I’ve lived in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. We have raised our children here and are watching them raise their children here. It’s not a big city—just under 80,000 in the city proper—but we do have our claims to fame. It’s home to the Peterborough Lift Lock, the highest hydraulic boat lift in the world. Students from around the globe come here to attend Trent University, one of Canada’s leading undergraduate universities. Our hockey team, the Peterborough Petes, is the longest continually operating junior franchise in Canada and has sent more players to the NHL than any other junior team. Peterborough has a vibrant arts community, great restaurants, top-notch recreational facilities and … well, you get the picture. I really like my hometown.
All of that positive press was tainted on November 14, 2015, when someone set fire to Masjid Al-Salaam, our local mosque. Thankfully, no one was in the building when the fire started, although there had been people there just a half-hour before. Within hours, the story made headlines around the world. Residents of Peterborough woke up the next morning to hear the name of their hometown being used in the same sentence as the ugly words “hate crime.”
As I write this, the person responsible for this act has not yet been arrested. I hope they will be—for their sake as well as for the sake of our community. Unfortunately, the prejudice and fear behind such acts will never be arrested as long as we keep seeing each other as “the Other.”
The sullying of my hometown’s name forced me to look in the mirror. How do I view the person who, by virtue of race, nationality or religion, is different from me? Do I seek to understand them? Do I dare to dialogue with them? Or do I give in to the mistrust and hostility that fuel hatred and violence? In his book The Other, Ryszard Kapuscinski issues this challenge: “There beside you is another person. Meet him. This sort of encounter is the greatest event, the most vital experience of all. Look at the Other’s face as he offers it to you. Through this face he shows you yourself: more than that—he brings you closer to God.”
“Why would you keep a book after you’ve read it?” someone asked, staring at the bookshelves that line the walls of our living room. I couldn’t, in that moment, think of a witty answer, at least not a polite one. I’ve since thought of a dozen. The simplest one is “So I can read it again.”
Twice in the span of one week, I heard or read of someone’s making reference to Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence. Calvin Miller called it “the single novel that has influenced me most.” Novelist Caryl Phillips, being interviewed on CBC’s Writers & Company, called it “a great masterpiece” and urged listeners to read it. Since I’d already read it, I did the next best thing. I pulled it off my bookshelves and read it again.
Silence is a historical novel set in 17th-century Japan during a time of severe persecution of Christians. The main character is a Portuguese Jesuit missionary named Sebastian Rodrigues who is imprisoned and tortured in an attempt to get him to recant his faith. It truly is a profound piece of literature. The descriptions of torture and martyrdom are painful to read. The young priest’s struggle with God’s apparent silence in the face of suffering is unsettling. There were lines in the narrative that stopped me in my tracks. Like this one: “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” If you need neat and tidy answers, beware. Endo leaves questions trailing off the final page of the book like orphaned ellipses ...
Reading this story again now, at this point in my life and with all that is happening in our world, was timely. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians is as old as my namesake and as fresh as the nightly newscast. Stephen may have been the first martyr of the church, but he was not the last. Jesus warned His disciples that they would face persecution. And they have. Reading Silence again helped put current events in perspective for me.
In this issue’s From Our General Superintendent, David Wells writes about attending a recent Global Christian Forum consultation in Albania. The theme of the consultation was “Discrimination, Persecution, Martyrdom: Following Christ Together.” I encourage you to read his column—and then read it again.
Paul closes his letter to the Roman church by sending greetings to a long list of people. In addition to the 24 people he names in Rome, he refers to two unnamed women and five different groups of people. The temptation is to treat these passages like we do the credits at the end of a movie. But sometimes we miss out when we leave too soon. A few weeks ago I stayed in my seat and read the closing chapter of Romans. Then I sat a little longer and thought about what I’d read.
The chapter is warm with words of relationship. Paul knew these people. Many of their stories were woven into his own story. Priscilla and Aquila were fellow workers who had risked their lives for him. The mother of Rufus had been like a mother to him. But of all the story teasers we’re given, the one that intrigues me most is about Andronicus and Junia, Paul’s relatives “who have been in prison with me” and who “were in Christ before I was” (Romans 16:7).
That sounds like a story worth reading again.