The cost of the Cross for campaigners

Martyrs have got a bad name these days. I grew up hearing stories of the early church, and those people who died at the hands of the Roman empire, simply for standing up for what they believed in. Peter, Joan of Arc, Bonhoeffer. All these people were noble victims because they stood up and faced death when issued with the choice between denying what they believed and suffering at the hands of their oppressors.

I'm pretty sure that those who had lost their lives standing up for their faith were to be admired. But sadly, the rise of religious fundamentalism (and I'm including Christians here) has led us to take a slightly more cautious approach. I recently spent some time in the West Bank, where I encountered, for the most part, people who were kind, generous, and quietly determined not to accept their occupation by Israel as a fait accompli.

These people - Muslim and Christian - were not violent idealogues, they were simply individuals tired of existing in the shadow of the Israeli state and its encroachment on every aspect of their lives. But there was one thing which troubled me – and that was the posters of Palestinian 'martyrs' which littered the walls. The trouble was not with the bizarre fusion of Hollywood action-hero and Islamic imagery, or even idea that someone might celebrate those who have died defending their right to a nation; my trouble was with the designation of all those who have died as “martyrs”. To me, a martyr is an innocent victim of an unjust situation – not someone who takes up arms against his oppressor. It sometimes worries me that Jesus never directly challenged the Roman occupation under which he himself was subjugated.

When a Roman officer came to him and asked what he must do to be saved, Jesus didn't call him to lay down his arms and reject the establishment of which he was a part. Instead, he called him into radical discipleship. What a lost opportunity! And yet, here we are, in SPEAK, directly challenging powers and principalities, because we believe that the call of Christ is to justice and peace. But over this Easter weekend, I have been reflecting on Christ's death at the hands of an empire He refused to reject. What was He doing? Why was he not railing against the injustices perpetrated by the sprawling empire? Why does he just stand there and take it? After all, a gross injustice is being perpetrated against Him! The Jewish people expected a messiah who would come and deliver them from the Roman Empire; someone who would sweep in and destroy their oppressors. Jesus failed to do so. Actually, he didn't fail. He refused even to try. Which is an important distinction.

Jesus refused to identify the individual guards with the system they were a part of. He refused to point the finger at Pilate, and hold him up as an example of everything that was wrong with society. He refused to rebuke the guards who beat him, or scorn the crowds who were mocking Him. 

Instead, he said one thing: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. An innocent man, God incarnate, pinned to a cross, flanked by thieves and murderers, forgiving those who had persecuted him.  As an act of non-violent resistance, it's a powerful statement. As an act of civil disobedience, resurrection beats them all.

And it contains a message to us as campaigners: we must not be in the business of condemning others – even those who are part of the structures we abhor. The true Christian approach to campaigning requires us to love the oppressors, and true martyrdom might include laying down the sense of self-righteousness we get from condemning them. Instead we are called to stand with those who are victims, even when it leads us to the cross.