Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.
I recall sitting down to write my An Orthodox Response to Beheading by Muslims, and as my re-inaugural piece for the Orthodox Christian Network (a number of years ago, I wrote a short series during Great Lent). I remember in my own reflections being struck, day after day after day in the month of August, with countless examples of martyrs in the daily calendar, the majority of whom died by beheading—some under the Romans, others under Islam. It seemed very clear to me that the Lord was speaking to us, in our day, through the Holy examples of the Holy Martyrs. The few examples I wrote about speak for themselves.
I wrote that piece, in point of fact, as an evangelistic essay. If you re-read it, you’ll see it at the end, though in retrospect I can see why only a handful of perhaps 500 comments even mentioned my closing point—that we Christians are seriously in jeopardy throughout the world. And this because Orthodox Christians on the whole largely ignore the Great Commission, avoiding at almost all costs the sharing of the Gospel in significant ways. Generally speaking, we have adapted ourselves to the point of Pink-Floyd-like comfortably-numb contentment in the free-market world. I am, to be fair and sure, speaking in broad generalities, but broadly-speaking, I believe it is so.
To give only an example or two: I had a wonderful conversation with a Protestant Pastor friend who is involved in teaching house-churches in China about how to live and grow. In the Protestant Christian movement, one of the five “uncles” (perhaps the Protestant equivalent of a Patriarch) leads a house-church which has 1.5 MILLION followers. Recall: he is one of five. My friend asked me if we had Orthodox Presence in China. While we can cite a remarkable history of effort in China, including 222 Martyrs and our shared hierarch, St John Maximovitch (one of my parishioners sang in his boys’ choir in Shanghai as a child), there are 400 believers in Beijing, a city of 19.6 million people. According to the Chinese Orthodox Website , “most believers live in four main locations, still mainly of Russian origin.” Thank God for that much; but that is chaplaincy, not mission.
In the largest Muslim country in the world, the greatest Orthodox Christian debate has not been strategy about how and where to plant missions, it is who has jurisdiction in that ‘barbarian’ land. This has led to a crippling of missionary endeavors, regardless of which Orthodox “side” one takes.
Those two massive countries are brutally hard missionary nuts to crack. But the story is telling. We have an additionally lamentable overall record in places where we are as close to 100% free to preach the Gospel as we can be: the USA, Canada, the UK, France, Spain—not even to mention Eastern European traditionally Orthodox Lands where the Church is losing ground, though it is the very anchor of those nations.
Reflecting further, we must continue to recall that “Peace on earth” is not the goal of Christianity—faithfulness to Christ is the aim. And while I cannot begin to fathom what it would look like if the whole world were under Sharia Law, not even that would prevent Christians from being numerous and faithful, as were the commemorated and decapitated August martyrs.
Because I take my own words very seriously, our faith very seriously, and desire to be a lifelong disciple of Jesus Christ, I also read much after my essay and made many phone calls to see if I missed a mark regarding retaliation against those wicked beheaders. I spent a long time speaking with a new friend, Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, who reminded me of a few things. First, Jesus Christ killed no one. True, not all followed Jesus, not even all of those whom he healed. In the case of the Cleansed Lepers, 90% of them did not return to give him thanks. But He healed them and sent them on their way regardless. Neither did He call legions of angels, though He could have, to prevent or retaliate for His own Crucifixion. His prayer was “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
I freely admit now, as I did in my first essay, that I sit in the comfort of a mountless community in Mount Pleasant, SC. And I do not know if I would have the strength and grace to keep the example of the Holy Martyrs if faced with the same bloody sword. God protect us all, and convert the darkest-and-hardest-of-heart!
Nevertheless, I ask the readers of this essay, along with those who blessed me with such praise as “Utter nonsense!” in my earlier one: what do we say about the martyrs?
What do we say about about St Sophia, who, after her daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (Sept 17) were beaten with rods, tied to wheels, burned in an oven, and dropped in a tar pit (and survived), watched the three of them beheaded, and then died from a pierced heart?
What do we say about St Constantine Bracoveanu (pictured above with his family) —an 18th century martyr whose example matches St Sophia’s, except he was finished off by a Muslim sword? (August 15)
Or St Kosmas the Aitolian (Aug 24), strangled by Turks and thrown into a river?
Or St Thekla, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Protomartyr, who lived a dozen martyr’s deaths (attacks of wild animals unleashed, rape, tied to oxen and dragged, chased with red-hot rods) before being swallowed by a rock? (Sept 24)
Or St Callistratus, a soldier, cut to pieces, along with his companions (Sept 27)?
Or Sts Cyprian and Justina, Oct 2, beheaded?
This is not the essay for dealing with the question of the Military Saints. (Though, if I would give myself one sentence, is there not a great distinction to be made between Orthodox armies, in Orthodox lands, defending Orthodox borders and the United States of America defending not its borders, but “its interests”—shifty as they seem to be?)
For now, my reflection on my reflection is this: What about the Martyrs? Were they fools? Sad stories? Cowards?
Or, could it be that we—despite the power and peace and promises of the Lord—cannot bear the thought of facing merciless, cowering, anonymous murders, blessing them, and praying for their forgiveness as the Crucified and Resurrected Lord’s power is perfected in our utter humiliation, at the edge of their “weapon of peace”?
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