One sweltering August night of my early girlhood, a slow electric fan humming near the pulpit, the missionaries to China who visited our New Testament Baptist church unwrapped a pair of celadon porcelain dragons pried from the rafters of their house. No more evil spirits to ward off. No lingering demons to let slither through the open shutters once they had prayed for God's protection. I was not yet ten years old, captivated as they unveiled their treasure-trove of object lessons. When the red lacquered to pao ko was passed to me, I balanced it on my lap, sure I could find all 40 compartments in the box of hidden drawers, each concealed trigger that would spring the next choice riddle, and the next, as the missionaries told the story of a small village girl, just my age, who refused to "trample the cross and live." For this offense, Communist soldiers opened fire as she raised her hands to the sky and sang, in her own language, "Jesus Loves Me."

I looked up from the magical box. She made it look so easy: the pretzel bones of a small girl snapped in the desecration of her soul's house. She let the body go, when I would have snatched it back. The girl's face shone with tears while I would move to the back of the line, watching what was happening to the others, waiting for the soldiers to grow tired of their game, or hungry, so they would order me to run and get the rice they could smell scorching on the bottom of the old enameled cooking pot.

This is an age of atrocity, a "tyrant century," as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam calls it: "My animal, my age, who will ever be able / to look into your eyes?" Though there are ways to resist resignation, despair--call it what you will--I read the stories of the Christian martyrs of the twentieth century not so much to restore my hope in progress as to glimpse what it might mean to cherish God in such a time, to understand how they were able to profess belief in the Divine over all and through all and in all when what I have to go on is a seed of faith. How did they live in the darkness? How did they die in the light? I sink roots into the tenacity of their affirmation to the end: Jesus is Lord.

The word martyr conjures up scenes of Roman arenas where early Christians were pitted against wild animals, or it may bring to mind the gruesomely illustrated sixteenth-century accounts in the best-selling Foxe's Book of Martyrs--that favorite text of Protestant children. A friend of another tradition recites the names of Jesuit priests and friars killed by Protestant heretics. Some think of a in a pamphlet, in a hand-circulated publication, in yesterday's newspaper, or never reported except in a letter home from a widow of the man whose body was discovered only yesterday.

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Drawing my finger across a globe of the world I find the places where the Chinese girl and others like her have died. She was the first of the dead to charge me with the improbability of faith. To be a martyr you have to believe that something matters more than life. With the death toll of Christians rising throughout the world, my thoughts are drawn to the point of intersection between faith and death. In obscure archives and mission agency offices, I have been sorting through correspondences cut short, journals from the fields of missionaries' quiet labor and mostly unnoticed losses. I am responding to an almost overwhelming shadow narrative of this century's news--the world wars, the struggle for civil rights in the United States, the legacy of colonialism in Africa, the violently changing social landscape in Latin America--told through the stories of committed Christians whose faith in God not only did not spare them the peril of history, but often demanded their lives. How to account for such surety in a century of indifference and drift, such single-mindedness in a century whose cultural and moral pluralism, whose greed, disavows the singular?

Martyr, whose root meaning is witness, was first used in reference to early Christians who were put to death for their confession of faith in one true God. These witnesses expressed not what they had seen with their eyes but what they envisioned in their hearts. They endured their present suffering because of their confidence in God's ultimate reign on Earth and the hope they placed in a heavenly life to come. The term has broadened in current usage, but in the simplest understanding of martyrdom, an individual is required to deny Christ and live or confess him and die. Under such duress, the martyr freely chooses death over life--death seals a life's belief--in order to witness to the truth of Christ's claims and to his or her own faith.

These were the bald alternatives presented in the second century to Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna. Unwilling to call Caesar God, he let his captors tie him to a stake and set him alight.

"Come now," urged his captors, "where is the harm in just saying Caesar is Lord, and offering the incense, when it will save your life?"

Polycarp replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?"

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In our century, there are clear records of Christians being put to the choice between faith and life in Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, Armenia, Sudan, China, Chile, Iran--the list goes on. More often, though, a martyr's determination has been complicated by the layering of political or racial difference over the issue of direct spiritual opposition, and the choice is whether to continue to follow a spiritual call and remain in known danger or to cease; whether to stay in the path of jeopardy or to find another place to serve. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who could have chosen to escape El Salvador, refused, while others working in the area felt their usefulness to be greater if they removed themselves from the conflict. This does not represent a choice between suicide and survival (the martyr does not yield to the despair that suicide implies), but a willingness to accept the consequences of faith even when this means a threat to safety.

"The essential element in martyrdom," the contemporary Orthodox theologian Gerald Bonner writes, "is not the physical act of dying but rather a disposition of the will to live for Christ, with the necessary corollary that, by a strange but wholly Christian paradox, living for Christ may involve the necessity to lay down one's life for him."

Martyrs have demonstrated this commitment within a spectrum of initiatives--some through mission work directly proclaim the gospel story of Christ's love; others--including relief-agency and medical workers, teachers, translators--have chosen social or cultural service undertaken in the name of God as their means of witness. Still others (I think of Raoul Wallenburg and Steven Biko), not explicitly working to manifest God's grace, nevertheless worked within its breadth, and so demonstrated God's love by spending their lives for others. "What does the Lord require of you," wrote the prophet Micah, "but to live justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"

The choice to live a moral and compassionate life, characterized by humility toward God, begins long before any ultimate decision. A martyr's first faith grows with continued affirmations of God's direction over her own disposition. "The true martyr," says Archbishop Thomas Becket, as T. S. Eliot imagines his final Christmas sermon in "Murder in the Cathedral," "is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom."

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If we are not all called to this extremity of submission, we can at least recognize--in our own choices to persevere despite personal cost, to honor our beliefs in the contest with doubt--the significance of the daily, incremental decisions that influence who we become and how we behave.

When one member suffers, all the members suffer," the apostle Paul writes. He refers to the members of the metaphoric body of Christ as interdependent, each member's well-being crucial to the vitality of the whole. I read this statement about the metaphysical unity of those who suffer as a challenge to be aware of conditions outside my own secured boundaries. To identify with those who suffer for their faith--a path that more have taken this century than any other--is not to pretend to possess extraordinary belief, but to remind ourselves of the plea that must have crossed the lips of so many martyrs faced with their own last breath, "Lord, help my unbelief."

I find myself searching for an adequate response to the news of crucifixions of Christians in the mountains of Sudan; to young Salamat Masih, charged with blasphemy--for his belief in Jesus--under Pakistan's penal code, which decrees death for anyone who "by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad"; to the seven missionary children in Colombia who watched Marxist guerrillas throw their fathers into a truck and drive off, only to hear over a year later, June 19, 1994, that they had been found dead after a gun battle between the government and rebel forces; to accounts of persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, China. How to draw close to them? I find in the lives of a few martyrs, in the drawers and documents I am given to open, the seeds of affinity: It is their God I share, their willingness to live as if this God gives rise and meaning to our lives.

Our century begins in the fever of China's Boxer uprising, where Lizzie Atwater, a young American woman waiting to be executed, scratches a note to her sister: "They beheaded thirty-three of us last week in Taiwan. I was restless and excited while I thought there was a chance for life." A decree was issued calling for the execution of all foreigners--"Death to the foreign Devils . . . exterminate the foreign religion"--and in June and July of that year, 1900, in the northern Shansi province alone, Governor Yu-hsien had slaughtered 159 Christian missionaries and their children.

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Another drawer. Inside, a folded paper: Flossenburg, April 9, 1945, a few days before the Allies liberate the camp, the German pastor of the "Confessing Church," Dietrich Bonhoeffer, leads morning prayers for his fellow prisoners and soon after is led to a Nazi gallows with five other conspirators against Hitler. A British fellow captive recorded Bonhoeffer's parting words: "This is the end--for me, the beginning of life."

In the Huaorani territory of Ecuador, early 1956, the pilot of a low-flying search plane making its way along the Curaray River spots one of the five missing missionaries' bodies lying face down in the water.

The Congo massacres erupt as Chinese-trained Simba rebels of the People's Republic of the Congo strike government posts and conduct recruiting raids on villages. At the Catholic mission station in Buta, January 1964, in the northeast, 31 priests are stripped naked and bound together before they are marched to the riverbank. There Simbas hack them to pieces and throw their corpses into the current, or force the captive children of Protestants living there to parade the body parts on sticks through the mission grounds.

San Salvador, on the afternoon of March 24, 1980, a soldier appears at the door of the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero, blessing the offering, is saying the Mass at a convent hospital. That morning he had refused breakfast, walking alone instead of eating, his demeanor striking the sisters who cared for him as profoundly sad. The soldier opens fire, then is driven off in a red car.

What these Christian martyrs and others have contributed to the twentieth century is not their agonizing deaths but the legacy of their faith. "The cause, not the suffering, makes genuine martyrs," wrote Augustine. Their stories attest to the conviction of tens of thousands that to live is Christ and to die is gain.

If anyone wishes to come after me," says the red print of my old King James Bible, "let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 16:24-25). Of all spiritual concepts expressed in language, redemption through death seems to me the most central to Christian faith, and the most consistent to appear in the writings of twentieth-century Christian martyrs. It is in answer to this call to follow Christ that we begin to walk in the steps of a martyr's path. Bonhoeffer writes:

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If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. . . . To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him.

In an Edith Stein daybook, I read: "He who wants to keep his soul will lose it. Thus the soul can only find itself when it is not concerned with the self. . . . I believe that the more deeply someone is drawn into God, the more one must also come out of oneself; that is, come out into the world, in order to carry the divine life into it." Etty Hillesum--like Stein, born of Jewish parents and thought to be a convert to Christianity--did not return from Auschwitz, yet her diaries are free of despair: "By excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it." Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945), the light in Block 27 at Ravensbruck, wrote: "I am Thy message, Lord. Throw me, like a blazing torch into the night, so that all may see and understand what it means to be Thy disciple."

This pairing of life and death, this incongruous welcoming of their interrelation, the words opening into significance through their own opposites, has its prototype in the central story of Christianity. Through the willing sacrifice of Jesus on a cross, the world witnessed the love of God. Only, paradoxically, through the shedding of blood could lives ruined by sin and death be reanimated: through death entered life. In martyrdom's often gruesome triumph the Christian willingly identifies with the suffering and death of Christ in the full hope of also partaking in Christ's resurrection. If we have died with Christ, we shall also live with him.

Where such faith is involved, those who suffer are not victims. Victims suffer loss, are injured, are massacred (passive voice) against their will. We speak of victims of war, victims of the Holocaust, victims of rape and incest, victims of nuclear and chemical warfare, which are vile and purposeless acts conceived and carried out by humans against humans and so against God. Any commemoration of those who have died intentionally, securing meaning in their loss, must honor the memory of those crushed without choice.

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Implicit in the remembering of martyrs is the voice of resolve rising, however reluctantly, against the oppressor. Because of the clarity required of resistance, however many are slain, the martyr registers in history not en masse but as an individual, one perhaps too often expected to have lived a uniformly heroic life, but nevertheless in his or her conviction exemplary. But it is this declarative heft of a life that is silenced in the victim, "not because of the magnitude of the crime," the poet Czeslaw Milosz observes, "but because of its impersonal nature."

The atrocities enacted in our century strain our credulity at the possible meaningfulness of human existence. "Despair registers more authentically on our pulses than the rhetoric of hope," Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer writes in his provocative and intensely bleak work Admitting the Holocaust. Unwilling to find redemptive value in such extremity, Langer seeks to go beyond the pre-Holocaust linguistic salve of words like martyrdom, choice, heroism, resistance, believing these "naive notions" to have been stripped from those subjected to the utter devaluation of their lives by the Nazis.

He is right, of course, in saying that language is a tool we use to construct memory and to make sense of otherwise senseless loss:

When we speak of the survivor instead of the victim and of martyrdom instead of murder, regard being gassed as a pattern for dying with dignity, or evoke the redemptive rather than the grievous power of memory, we draw on an arsenal of words that urges us to build verbal fences between the atrocities of the camps and what we are mentally willing--or able--to face.

He is not right, however, to undermine the potential of individuals' volition and language to oppose the devaluation of life, on behalf of themselves and others. What have we but language and faith in pursuit of meaning?

I find myself drawn into mental dialogue with Langer on the subject of meaningful death as a result of my own exposure to the literature of witness written by Jewish martyrs. Nazis never possessed power over human souls any more than did the Turks own the spirits of the Armenians, or Idi Amin control the hearts of Ugandans. The advantage of spiritual force over the powers that oppose freedom of any kind is not its power to change circumstance. Rather, the advantage is in its ability to respond to devastation by drawing on transcendent strength and perspective that imbues circumstance with meaning, removing the finality from the circumstance.

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To banish the notion of martyrdom from any faith, Langer knows, deprives affliction of its message. Yet suffering becomes exemplary when it engages the will of the sufferer. I see this engagement in Langer's own proliferation of books and memory, though he claims he would have preferred from Etty Hillesum and Victor Frankl and others who, in their writing, attribute value to their suffering, what he calls "the more modest role of recorder of human wretchedness." Record for the sake of clarity: better this, he attests, than a chronicle of the human spirit's capacity for love and resolve that has matched and sometimes even masters human abomination.

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