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Hallo again to all.

Martyrdom is one of the earliest traditions in the church. Church custom holds that Saint Stephen was the first martyr, his stoning chronicled in Acts of the Apostles. From Justin Martyr in the 2nd century, the seven martyrs of Melanesia in 2003, to our revered Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, church history is a veritable Who's Who of those who died for their beliefs. It is tempting to admire the concept of martyrdom and those who have been martyred while holding the concept with skepticism. One can generally esteem those who hold dear enough to their faith to die for it, while remaining fully entrenched in one's own desire to remain living—in no small part to continue to live out that faith.

Typically the title of martyr is used for those who intentionally died for their beliefs—those who knew they were to die but were unwilling to recant. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cranmer, and Perpetua and Felicity all come to mind. Then there are those who died because of action taken on because of their beliefs, rather than a devotion to the belief itself. Though martyr comes from the Greek martureo—to witness, covering both, they seem to fall into a slightly different rank.

The church too, is filled with many of that sort, though most remain nameless. Conflict is so common in the world that the sacrifice of oneself for another or an ideal seems both common and uncommon. It is often those who see a situation from afar who become the most passionate. The American South in the 1960s was a tumultuous era. The continuing and often worsening treatment of those of African descent had reached intolerable levels, and brought the Civil Rights movement with fuller force. Nowhere was this felt deeper than in the Deep South state of Alabama, where police dogs had been released on young children and lynchings were common. Supporters of many races came from across the country to stand with those fighting for rights, including a first year seminarian from the northern state of New Hampshire, who was studying at the Episcopal Theological School. Though the Rt Revd Charles Carpenter, the diocesan of Alabama, told him and other would-be activists to stay out of his diocese, in August of 1965 he could not, and went on to Selma to help with voter registrations. He was arrested following a demonstration.

After his release on August 20, Daniels, Richard Morrisroe (a Roman Catholic priest), and two African American civil rights workers approached a small grocery store [in Hayneville] to purchase a cold drink. At the entrance to the store, a man wielding a shotgun challenged them. He ordered them away and then began firing. Morrisroe was wounded, and Jonathan Daniels was killed.

His alleged killer, a former deputy sheriff, was charged with manslaughter. Claiming self-defense, Thomas Coleman insisted that Daniels and Morrisroe had threatened him with a knife and a gun. A trial ensued, and although the population of the community was largely African American, Coleman was tried and acquitted by an all-white jury. Jonathan Daniels was the twenty-sixth civil rights worker killed in the South.*

In the fifty years since, an annual pilgrimage has been held at the site of the murder and a Eucharist held the courthouse. This year over 1500 pilgrims including nearly twenty bishops gathered to remember this sacrifice and bless a plaque on the site of the shop, which was torn down last year, perhaps in hopes of limiting the scope of the unwanted publicity the pilgrimage brought to the small town of Hayneville.

As to why he went, in a letter in March of that year, Daniels wrote

'"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary's glad song. "He hath showed strength with his arm." As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled "moment" that would, in retrospect, remind me of others--particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things." I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.' **

If it was Daniels' faith that led towards his journey to Selma and pushing Ruby Sales out of the way of the bullet and taking it for himself, then he was a martyr to the Civil Rights cause – knowingly giving up his life for Christ, rather than being an accidental bystander. After his death, the church did not do well by his family, the bishop of Alabama considering him an agitator. The Episcopal Church only added Daniels to the calendar in the 1990s.

On martyrdom, framing not only Daniels, but perhaps Christ's own sacrifice, popular novelist and historian Dan Brown writes: 'I do not fear death, for death transforms visionaries into martyrs; converts noble ideas into powerful movements.'

So long as those deaths remain as witness of one’s faith and not for personal glory nor accidental, it seems a perfect, though tragic fit.

See you next week,


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All of us at Anglicans Online

16 August 2015



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