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FIRST-PERSON: A man named Martin Burnham

ST. LOUIS (BP)–In A.D. 165, the Roman Prefect Rusticus encouraged Justin Martyr and his six companions to be sensible. They only needed to swear to the divinity of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and they would go free, unmolested. Threats of a swift beheading at the hands of a centurion did not shake their faith in Christ.

“Do with us what you will,” Justin replied. “We are Christians and do not worship idols.”

Justin and his six companions, including one woman, were slain by order of the prefect. Today their blood and their confession of faith in Christ cry out to those of us who now believe in persevering no matter the costs. I am confident the death of Martin Burnham will be remembered in the same way.

When the world around us has forgotten what happened — and they surely will — those of us in the church will remember his dedication to fulfilling the Great Commission in the Philippines and his service as a missionary pilot. And there will be little debate as we use the word “martyr” in conjunction with his name.

But will my children, who live in a day of homicide bombers and hijackers, even understand what a martyr is?

Today the word, which comes from a Greek verb meaning “to witness,” is appropriated by Muslim youth who choose to disintegrate themselves and others with nail-laden plastic explosives. Muslim extremists also have used the word to describe those who flew planes into buildings on Sept. 11. How tragic this corruption in thought is.

What is the witness of such men and women? What do they proclaim? It is easy to shout, “God is great” before detonating a belt of explosives. It is easy to believe that such an act will advance the destruction of an opposing state. It is easy to wrap one’s faith in nationalistic fervor.

Such acts do not represent the hard choice of witnessing to the truth through a life lived for the good of humanity and for Christ.

It is much more difficult to live malnourished and diseased for months, as did the Burnhams, and still proclaim the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. There is greater difficulty in seeing a loved one, such as a wife, waste away before your eyes.

I know of no instance in the New Testament or in the history of the church when a Christian martyr committed suicide to promote faith in Christ or to achieve paradise. Some, however, rushed to the sides of family members who were nearing execution and themselves became victims of persecution. Those who were persecuted and survived also were considered “martyrs” because they had attested to Christ.

There were a number of reasons why the Burnhams made such opportune targets for the Abu Sayyaf guerillas. The first and primary reason for their abduction was that the Burnhams were Westerners, and most in Asia assume that every American citizen’s pockets are lined with cash.

The capture and killing of an American citizen is also a strong political statement, or a proverbial thumbing of the nose at the most powerful nation on the planet.

While I do not believe that the faith of the missionaries was a primary reason for their abduction, I imagine that the Abu Sayyaf were surprised to find that they had abducted Christian missionaries. Most Westerners are not “Christian,” but fundamentalist Islam preys on the fears of Third World peoples that the Christian West will one day conquer them and subject them to what they perceive to be polytheistic worship.

What we know of Martin and Gracia Burnham, however, confirms that they were deeply committed to Christ and suffered because of their association with him. They were real Christians. There is little doubt that the Burnhams used what opportunity they had to tell their Muslim captors about forgiveness, salvation and resurrection from the dead.

I am saddened by the loss of a brother in Christ, but as the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Christians do not grieve like those who have no hope. Although we shed tears, sob, lose sleep and yearn for our loved ones and brothers and sisters who have died physically, the bedrock of our faith is a hope in the resurrection of the dead solely because of our faith in Christ.

Burnham is, by far, not the first martyr. He will not be the last. But his brothers and sisters in Christ will remember him.

When my daughters are old enough to understand the things of faith and they ask what it means to follow Christ, I will tell them that it sometimes means losing everything in the process. When they ask what that means, I will say, “There was a man named Martin Burnham. … You’ll meet him someday.”

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin