STEPHEN, THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
ACTS 6:8 – 8:1
Boxing Day is St. Stephen’s Day. Remember a Christmas Carole “Good King Winceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” Stephen was a martyr stoned to death for his faith, thus became the first Christian martyr.
Thinking about Stephen the Martyr, I want to make it quite clear that our faith does not encourage suicide. Christian faith does not glorify death. Death of an innocent person happens because evil hates goodness and innocence. So evil kills a good person, especially when a good person tells the inconvenient truth.
A martyr does not seek death recklessly. Remember Jesus’ prayer on the night he was arrested to be crucified in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Father, take this bitter cup away from me.” Jesus did not seek death. He dreaded it. There is a distinction between martyrdom and suicide. Christian faith is based on the respect for life therefore does not glorify gratuitous death. It is important to recognize this today when some religious extremists glorify suicidal acts.
When I lived in Palestine in 2003, I saw many pictures of Palestinian young men and women on community bulletin boards who died committing suicide-bombing. They were called “martyrs.” It is a wrong use of the word; they were not martyrs. ISIS terrorists also misuse the word in the same way. Likewise, during the WW II, Italy and Japan misused the word: Japanese suicide bomber pilots were called “Kamikaze – wind of God,” and in Italy the sailors rode torpedos and steered it to the enemy warship and died. They were not martyrs though were called as such and celebrated as heros. Martyrs die for their conviction, but do not commit suicide.
A best-selling Japanese Catholic novelist, Shusaku Endo, examined the notion of the word “martyr” in the church and wrote a historical novel called “Silence.” (You can buy it in English through Amazon.) Endo tells a story of a historical figure, a Portugese Jesuit missionary priest in Japan during the 16th Century. His name was Christovo Ferreira. At that time, in Japan, practice of Christianity was prohibited punishable by death. Covert Christians were tested, by being asked to step on the image of Mother and Jesus. Those who didn’t were burned at the stake or crucified. Endo depicts Ferreria as a man who could not bear watching his beloved Christian converts dying because of what he taught them. Ferreria decided to outwardly recant his own faith, and appear to give up his own salvation, in order to set an example and try to save the lives of Japanese converts. Endo criticised the cult of martyrdom that celebrates these individuals as heros and saints.
Did Stephen have to die? He was stoned to death by crowd who heard Stephen’s speech. A rumour had it that he was speaking against Moses (Laws) and the Temple. High Priest asked him if the rumour was true. (Acts 6:13) He did not deny the charges. But he gave a long speech to explain his belief. (Acts 7) Stephen recalled the history of the Hebrew people who repeatedly behaved against God and against the messenger of God, Moses. Also, he reminded people that God always went to wherever people moved to. God ordered people to pitch a tent for him. Stephen reminded people that God did not live in the houses built by humans. (Acts 7:48) People did not obeyed the God and killed God’s messengers, prophets, many times. In the end, they killed the Messiah they were waiting for, referring to the crucifixion of Jesus. (7:52)
The question is: did Stephen knowingly say these things in order to be killed? And was it even a legitimate death penalty? There are some interesting questions raised in the New Testament instances of execution. For example, Jewish authority technically did not execute Jesus. Crucifixion was a Roman method of execution; Hebrew custom was death by stoning. Jesus was crucified for an offence against the Roman Empire as a terrorist. Meanwhile, Stephen died using a traditional Hebrew custom–though without an official trial. The Council officials participated in the stoning, but it was a “knee-jerk” response; they behaved like an unruly crowd. In other words, it was a lynching. It is obvious that the official temple authority avoided the responsibility of due process for Stephen’s death. In the case of Jesus, the Temple authority shifted responsibility of his death to the governor of Roman Empire; and, in the case of Stephen, left it to an unruly crowd. The temple authority and the office of High Priests did have authority to formally examine and execute offenders of religious crime, such as adultery. Why did they evade the responsibility in the case of Stephen?
In both cases of Jesus and Stephen, what angered the religious authority was a threat against the temple, not Jesus’ teaching as such. Jesus upset the finance of the temple by disrupting its market system. Jesus’ action against merchants triggered the plot to kill Jesus. (Mark 11:18) Stephen questioned the legitimacy of the temple by telling the traditional story of the tent called the “tabernacle”, as the meeting place of people with God. David was not allowed to build a temple. Solomon did, to show off his success and wealth in building his empire. Building was a symbol of power, not of God but of humans.
When religion becomes a matter of domination and power in stead of respect for God and love for fellow humans, it becomes demonic; evil not blessing. That was what Jesus showed through his life and teaching. Jesus was about love, not power and domination. This is why he had to die. As far as the religious authority was concerned, what Jesus stood for was not allowed. It was the same with Stephen. He had to die.
However, religion can not overtly claim to be in a position to seek power for itself. It has to be seen as acting for the welfare of the world. This is why in both cases, of Jesus and Stephen, the temple authority avoided the responsibility for the deaths of two good and innocent men; shifting it to the Romans and to the unruly crowd. This is hypocrisy. Jesus often condemned hypocrisy more severely than immorality.
When Salman Rushdie was under a threat of death by Iranian authority, he did not condemn Islamic religion as such. He said that when religion assumed power it became evil. Christian church was guilty of it many times in history just like a certain groups of Islam today. Religion is about mercy and love, not about power and wealth. Therefore when religion begins to claim the right to domination, power, and wealth, it no longer has legitimacy. Particularly if it claims the right to kill, it becomes a demonic power. This was what Stephen was fighting. And he didn’t back down. Did he commit suicide, or did he have to die? Good question.