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The facts of the stories of the martyrs are known, in part. Our knowledge of the meaning of martyrdom is superficial, at best. May it always be so.
They died for believing in what matters - for believing and speaking boldly. Only believing and only speaking ... basic rights we accept as 'given' but which relatively few, even in our time, are able to indulge.
We believe, in part, because they were willing to die for the witness of their senses. Similarly, we know that the testimony of the first martyrs is true because they endured torture and death when they could have avoided it all, simply by admitting to any fabrications or false claims. To die for a lie is not inconceivable but to accept death, when you are its creator, is. To speak the truth in the face of death is the essence of martyrdom. Their deaths were a gift to all generations and there is no greater gift.
Lest we forget - Jim and Charma Covell:
The Covells taught English in a post-secondary school near Tokyo, Japan, during the long and frightening build-up to the Second World War. They had been working as Christian missionaries in that nation for a decade, raising their three children in this foreign culture, loving the quiet and orderly people they served. They were well liked by students and faculty in return but they did not endear themselves to those around them who were being caught up in the pride and fervour of nationalism, as the island nation's expansionist leaders confronted their Asian neighbours with militaristic intent and eventually engaged the entire region in a war of conquest. The Covells witnessed and openly opposed the aggressive militarism they saw transforming this polite society. As war approached, their Baptist Mission sponsors decided to move them to the Philippines for their own protection.
That worked, for a while - until 1942, when Japanese forces invaded and quickly conquered the Philippines, bringing with them a mandate to eliminate all foreign influences from the country. Many Christian missionaries were captured and imprisoned; others, including the Covells and their mission team of nine, were able to escape to the hills where they lived in a remote village for almost two years before they were found and arrested by Japanese troops. Fortunately, their children had been sent back to the United States soon after their exit from Japan. Other members of their team were not as fortunate and the order to execute all missionaries and their children as spies was given.
The Covells, fluent in Japanese, were able to convince their captors' commanding officer that they were merely teachers and no threat to Imperial Japan and this officer even plead their case to his superiors - but to no avail; the best he could offer was to allow them an hour to pray in preparation for their execution. To his surprise, they offered themselves up, holding hands and singing as they were led to an appointed place in the bush and beheaded, one by one, as they knelt in prayer.
The facts surrounding their death were learned, in part, through Philipino sources from their village of refuge, and because one of their executioners was so impressed with their peaceful, even joyful acceptance of their fate, that he sought out Christians and converted to Christianity after the war.
A simple story: another testimony of the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, written with the blood of martyrs, mostly nameless men, women and children decapitated on the outskirts of a remote Philippine village in the jungle - tragic and senseless, futile and forgotten amidst the desolations of war and the deaths of millions that followed.
As it seldom is with martyrdom, their deaths were not the end of the story.
The Covell's oldest daughter, Margaret, learned of her parents' murder back in the States and developed an unforgiving hatred for the Japanese people. Being a Christian, however, she was not at peace with her reaction and fought against it, finally realizing that her parents would never have hated their executioners: they would have forgiven them. She was determined to follow their example and decided to put herself in the most difficult situation imaginable, under the circumstances: she offered her services as a social worker and caregiver in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Colorado. Only eighteen years old, she was accepted for the position and, though difficult at first, she watched her hatred turn once more to love.
She gave herself over to this service so completely that the prisoners began to talk among themselves about this strange American lady who so genuinely cared about them. When they asked her why she was so kind and giving, she would explain that it was because her parents had been missionaries to Japan and had been murdered by their military. Obviously, that answer provoked them enough to ask the next question and she would explain about the necessity of forgiveness and speak of the forgiveness of Christ that was available to all.
A nicer story still - but still not the end of the story.
After the war came the war trials, as the Japanese leadership and their military were held to account for their legendary brutality and systematic violations of the conventions of war. One officer in particular, Mitsuo Fuchida, a popular war hero dating back to their conquest of Manchuria and now the head of air operations for the Japanese Imperial Navy, was compelled by General MacArthur to testify at these trials, multiple times. He was so incensed that the victors were treating the vanquished so unfairly, when they themselves (and every other nation in history, he believed) treated conquered peoples the same way, that he set out to prove that the Americans had been just as brutal and no less merciless with their enemies than the occupying Japanese forces had been.
To do this, he began seeking out and interviewing returning prisoners of war ... and he began hearing stories of abundant food and of good medical care and of kindness ... and he began hearing stories of 'Peggy', the name by which the Japanese prisoners had known Margaret Covell in Colorado. In the tradition of the Samurai, following the code of 'Bushido', believing in the honour and the duty of taking vengeance upon one's enemies, Fuchida could not understand what he was hearing. He abandoned his search for atrocities, seeking instead more information about this young girl -
- and then 'one of those things' happened to Mitsuo Fuchida.
As he was walking on the streets of Tokyo, a man pressed a small piece of literature into his hand. The literature was a Christian tract - a testimony to forgiveness, written by a former prisoner of the Japanese army, and the man who wrote it was Jacob DeShazer. An American airman with "Doolittle's Raiders", DeShazer had been a bombardier in a B-25 on that first air raid over Tokyo. DeShazer's plane had run out of fuel and he had to parachute into Japanese-held China. Captured and tortured by the Japanese, he had become a Christian after someone provided a Bible to the POWs and, following the war, he and his wife moved to Japan as missionaries to bring the gospel of forgiveness and salvation to those who had brutalized him. Here was a man, much like himself: a warrior; and here, again, was this incomprehensible concept of 'forgiveness'.
Fuchida knew when he was under attack. He purchased a Bible for himself to learn more of this strange faith; he read and studied and questioned and, eventually, he surrendered to the power of God's grace and forgiveness: he became a Christian. He became an evangelist in Japan, winning thousands to Christ. He became a missionary to the United States!
Mitsuo Fuchida, the decorated national hero, the pilot who transmitted that fateful message: "Tora! Tora! Tora!", the commander of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 - this Shinto warrior became a warrior for Christ and he spent the rest of his life travelling the world, preaching the gospel of the forgiveness of sins through His blood and the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, for all who will accept God's freely-offered gift.
Today, there is much talk of martyrdom in this world. Many are shedding their blood. Mostly, it is murder. There are many martyrs, like the Covells, to be sure, made vulnerable and being murdered because of their faith - but mostly it is their murderers talking of martyrdom. The distinction is vast and important. The distinction matters.