The impulse to transform terror, to resist its tide with language or music or love, flows from a perception that all history is caught up in meaning greater than a single event can reveal and that has been showing itself through the ages, an act of faith Langer cannot allow himself in the dark aftermath of the death camps. His views are not particularly Jewish, nor mine peculiarly Christian. We have made different choices of belief, each available within the other's orthodoxy: the one to see certain events as beyond the scope of divine intention and therefore solely of human doing (secularism), the other to see all history as informed by the freedom of human choice but ultimately subject to God (theodicy), lifting the death of martyrs from the sheer helplessness of victimhood to a purposed gain.

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints," writes the psalmist (116:15). "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord" (Rev. 14:13). Though tortured or persecuted or stricken, the lives of his children are never wasted in God's sight. In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1983 Templeton Address, "Men Have Forgotten God," we hear from the man who exposed the 60 million dead under Stalin to an incredulous world in language devoid of empty solace or evasion. He said, "The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century."

The flaw of sensibility that lacks divine dimension is to see only oppressors and victims. Such a view refuses to acknowledge the moral force of the individual. To see clearly is to look intently, without flinching, at all that is human, the degradation and the rarer glory, and also to witness, in what is visible, all that we are given to see of God.

I overhear in the fragments a quiet mingling of purpose and sorrow that speaks sometimes in letters home from the field or in journal entries or phrases of static-congested radio transmission. It is here that the unseen imprint of God seems almost perceptible in the martyrs' astonishment at God's presence in their dire straits, in their repeated insistence on an unfathomable peace that suffuses the elements surrounding them or, in some cases, in the mere acquiescence to living, though near the end many begin to have premonitions of death.

Here we glimpse what the martyrs themselves identify as the grace of God, perhaps somewhat nebulously for those of us looking on, reaching to catch the hem of his robe--where is God? They depend for strength on a power that reveals itself at the final gasp of their own frailty. In these fragments there is none of the requisite hyperbole of early martyrologies, but the resolution of those whose hearts have turned toward heaven. I mark the simple words: peace, rest, quiet.

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From the Boxer uprising, more of the letter from Lizzie Atwater to her sister, written August 3, 1900:

Dear ones, I long for a sight of your dear faces, but I fear we shall not meet on earth. . . . I am preparing for the end very quietly and calmly. The Lord is wonderfully near, and He will not fail me. I was very restless and excited while there seemed a chance of life, but God has taken away that feeling, and now I just pray for grace to meet the terrible end bravely. The pain will soon be over, and oh the sweetness of the welcome above!

My little baby will go with me. I think God will give it to me in Heaven, and my dear mother will be so glad to see us. I cannot imagine the Savior's welcome. Oh, that will compensate for all these days of suspense. Dear ones, live near to God and cling less closely to earth. There is no other way by which we can receive that peace from God which passeth understanding. . . . I must keep calm and still these hours. I do not regret coming to China, but am sorry I have done so little. My married life, two precious years, has been so very full of happiness. We will die together, my dear husband and I.

I used to dread separation. If we escape now it will be a miracle. I send my love to you all, and the dear friends who remember me.

Days after her husband's body was found in Ecuador, January 12, 1956, Barbara Youderian writes in her journal:

God gave me this verse two days ago, Psalm 48:14, "For this God is our God for ever and ever: he shall be our guide even unto death." As I came face to face with the news of Roj's death, my heart was filled with praise. He was worthy of his homegoing. Help me, Lord, to be both mother and father, to know wisdom and instruction. . . . I wrote a letter to the mission family, trying to explain the peace I have.

All Lois Carlson hears is a screen of static from the shortwave radio, then these words pressing through the distance between them in her husband's weakened voice: "Where I go from here I know not, only that it will be with Him. If by God's grace I live, which I doubt, it will be to His glory." September 24, 1956, Dr. Paul Carlson radios again, this time from Wasolo, on the other side of the Ubangi River, to where she is waiting for him in the Central African Republic. He has stayed with his patients, though the hospital he runs in the Belgian Congo has been overtaken by Simba nationalists. Lois waits near the static for days without a sound from him and then, in his last brief contact, a bit of paper dated October 21, is thrust into her hand. She reads, "I know I'm ready to meet my Lord, but my thought for you makes this more difficult. I trust that I might be a witness for Christ." In the New Testament found in his jacket pocket, Carlson had written the date and a single word the day before the Simbas shot him. Peace.

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The martyrs' understatement of lack, dread, duration, their forward gaze, balance our own grief; their humility plays the counterpoint to overambitious eulogy.

Those who have wished to make of commemoration a warning or an idol have through history inflated the memory of the Christian dead. Though the spiritual purpose of the stories of martyrdom was clear from the beginning, over the years they began to accrue miracles and apocryphal codicils. Just as the dying Saint Stephen saw the heavens open to reveal the glory of God, the fragrance of bread rose from Polycarp's burning flesh. His soul, it was said, lifted from his body in the form of a dove. This spiritualization makes Polycarp an allegorical Christ, the bread of life. The dove of his soul flying upward alerts readers to the presence of the Holy Spirit, who appeared first as a dove at the baptism of Jesus.

The historicity of several of the early passiones, verified through court records or corroborative eyewitness accounts, is far outweighed by wholly fabricated incidents and by the extravagant inflation of the numbers of dead. In the trumped-up testimony of exotic deaths we glimpse the earliest impulses of an emergent genre, consistent in style through the most recent of martyrologies. Tell me the story of her inspired expiration, and I will supply, along with allegorical miracles and rapturous apparitions, the demonized oppressors on stages hung with patterned psychic and political drapery. Lace collars, worn velvet shoes, a shriek on the tongue of a wild heifer. The din of spiritual bliss equates with wretched death. Under gilded domes and iced bridges, winter bent double. Blood like the tears of Jesus trickled from the old man's palm.

This literature reports its news in a style foreign to those raised on contemporary journalism, because the purpose has less to do with conveying historical detail than with imparting spiritual truth.

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The anonymous authors embed their accounts with hope, resolve, and the requisite goriness indigenous to the genre. They are riven with inspiration and slim on information--though maybe we will find an address where we are asked to send words of comfort to a Pakistani widow and her ten orphaned children, maybe a request for correspondence appealing for a prisoner's release.

I am both drawn to and repulsed by these stories--their break from everyday language into heightened style is not idiosyncratic. Paired with the difficulty of finding words for spiritual experience is the problem of matching language to what we have been forced to see and hear and feel.

Poets and scholars, particularly since the First World War, have noted the shattering of common language as it approaches its own inadequacy to describe reality: war and its aftermath, human slaughter and debasement. For our present consideration, I would add the violent deaths of the martyrs. In conditions of extremity, language tends either to revert to conventional usage as a means of retreating from the particulars toward the protective distance of the familiar, or we find it reaching into reality, experimentally, toward a diction that is sufficient for both incommunicable sorrow and the possibility of renewal.

Czeslaw Milosz urges on language the vigor necessary to attend the birth of horror, not simply to observe but to redeem through witness. I imagine this redemptive vigor to have been an informing impulse in the writing of the martyrs' lives. First witness, then excess--it is the manner of all movements in writing and the arts: the real, then the imitation, the making-use-of.

Human-rights agencies' reports and missionary bulletins can only point in the direction of the current crisis. They stack bodies as names on a list. They publish the random, smuggled photograph. Do not think these pictures to be isolated instances. They appear beside appeals to join in letter-writing campaigns to free others whose lives are threatened.

Here is the naked body of the Reverend Sylvio Claude, a Protestant pastor and human-rights campaigner active since the Duvalier regime in Haiti. He is surrounded by the mob who lynched him for protesting injustice under President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Method of torture: "the necklace," a tire doused with gasoline hung around the victim's neck and set on fire. One man with his hands on his hips steps on the dead man's face. Another agency must certainly document the atrocities committed against the supporters of Aristide.

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Here is a black-and-white image of Lai Manping, 22, who lies dead from beatings inflicted by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) following a raid on a house-church meeting in Taoyuan, Shaanxi province, China, 1994. In the photograph the bloodied offering bag, which has been thrown on top of him, rests across his chin. The PSB has arrested more than 90 Christians in an attempt to cover up the murder.

"Paul Uchibori's children were martyred before his very eyes. He fell in a faint. When he revived, he said that he had seen his children in heaven and that they gave him great consolation. He died by being plunged into boiling water."

"Leonard Massadeodezu was beheaded. He was encouraged to face death by seeing an apparition of his wife, Magdalene, who was martyred before him. . . . Others had their ears and noses cut off. Apples don't fear the knives that peel them, because the cutting yields an aroma and a sweet taste that produces joy in children."

"Brother Saw Ting Jing, a helper and co-worker of our mission, smuggled 20,000 copies of Bibles and "Tortured for Christ" into China. He was arrested by the communists in China and we do not know if he is alive. Let us pray for him."

The voice telling these stories is that of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Jewish Christian who spent 14 years in prison, three of those in solitary confinement, because he claimed aloud what he believes is true--He is one and there is no second.

His work continues around the world in areas where Christianity is forbidden by law and by physical force. He calls his organization The Voice of the Martyrs. His monthly newsletter raises the impassioned plea that we love (with the love Christ offers) those who persecute Christians, that we assist (with supplies and letters and books) Christians who are being imprisoned and killed by those opposed to the free exercise of religion, that when faced with opposition to the gospel we endure to the end. He is now 86 years old, the age of Polycarp when his soul flew dovelike toward the sky.

Part of Wurmbrand's service has been to document with photographs and letters the history of Christian martyrdom in the latter half of the twentieth century. His offices house a paper mausoleum unlike any the world has ever witnessed, save perhaps in the chronicles of John Foxe, whose multi-volumed account of martyrs through the sixteenth century might compare, though it lacks the color and immediacy engendered by one who has suffered torture himself. Wurmbrand exhorts us to prepare ourselves. Christians, don't be caught off guard. When you are captured and imprisoned it will be too late to equip yourselves to face the enemy with love. Practice today. Practice breathing so that you are calm when questioned. Practice physical pain so that you don't betray your brothers and sisters when put to the test.

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A third of the Christian church today must operate in secrecy, under the threat of extermination, Wurmbrand reminds his readers. He exhorts to prayer rather than fear, to discipline instead of complacency. Accustomed to extremes, he adopts the language of immoderation for his own uses. At a wailing pitch, he warns against distinguishing ourselves from the suffering, a stance that in our century has allowed the perpetration of atrocity.

I think what it would mean for me, today, to have my faith taken from me--pilfered by my own inward doubts, or seized by some external tyranny. No one is demanding that I deny what I believe; but have I denied myself--living within conditions of privilege and safety much of the world has never known--and taken up my cross, daily, in order to follow Christ?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? The spiritual invites us into the discomfort of his presence. I wonder, trembling, if I had been there, if I would have done what Peter did (after Jesus had washed Peter's feet and served him a meal), insisting he had never known Christ, or what the Chinese girl did, freely testifying to the love of Jesus.

I am reminded by the vigilance of another witness, by his intimate identification with those who suffer, of one who carried a message of compassion and restraint despite the tortuous climb of the path ahead of him. Perhaps readying himself for what was to come, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed those gathered at the funeral of the children killed by a bomb as they attended Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963:

I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity's affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.


Susan Bergman is the author of "Anonymity" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a memoir. This essay is adapted from "Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith," a collection of essays edited by Bergman (forthcoming in September from Harper San Francisco).

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