[notice]A Perspective by IN Context Ministries[/notice]
On Saturday 29 November 2014 Werner Groenewald and his two children, Jean-Pierre and Rodé, were killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul. Hannelie, his wife, was not at home during the time and survived the attack, but lost everything.
Three gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the compound where Werner and his family lived in Kabul, exchanging fire with security forces before leaving Werner and his two children dead. Six other hostages were rescued after the afternoon attack while one Afghan worker also died in the attack. A Taliban spokesman said in a statement that it was targeting “a secret Christian missionary and foreign invaders’ intelligence centre.”
The truth is that Werner and his family were not missionaries. They were aid workers at Partnership in Academics and Development (PAD) aiming to uplift the people of Afghanistan. The Biblical implications however is that even though they were not missionaries, they were witnesses. This cost Werner and his family their lives. They knew this as they would often, as a family, talk about the reality of working as aid workers in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. At a conference in China a month before the tragedy, Werner’s last topic he spoke about was about “Counting the cost of following Jesus”. His words will remain: “We only die once, so it might as well be for Jesus.”
What role does martyrdom play within the Kingdom of God? How do we view the death of three beloved witnesses in the shadow of the cross? Has a western sacrifice-free theology of comfort and security diluted the Gospel to such an extent that martyrdom is viewed with horror instead of with honour?
Rakesh Peter Dass, a Christian scholar and ecumenical worker from India, wrote an article in 2009 that shared a Christian perspective on Martyrdom that will assist us in dealing with the death of the Groenewald family. (1) The article is taken as a whole but revised to make sense of the horrific circumstances behind the death of Werner and his children:
Rakesh begins his article by observing that the Greek word from which the word “martyr” is derived simply means to be a witness to something one has personally observed. In one of his last conversations before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Yet the Church has always understood that his words were not reserved to those who had been physically present with him. The first followers of Jesus called themselves “witnesses” to what they saw and learned while with Christ, but those who lived decades and even centuries later recognized that they, too, were witnesses.
In a similar way Werner and his family never saw themselves as missionaries but simply as witnesses. They never went to Afghanistan to convert Muslims to Christianity. They always remained faithful in their calling to educate, train, reach out to and love the people of Afghanistan. They were indeed witnesses through their lives, and ultimately through their death.
Many generations of early Christians bore witness to the point of death, so many that the word “martyr” began to signify suffering or dying due to one’s faith testimony or “witness”. As Cyprian, 3rd century Bishop of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia), approached his martyrdom, he wrote: “This is the baptism angels use: God and his Anointed One rejoice in it: after it, no one sins again; it is the full flower of our faith; it takes us out of this world and joins us with God. Baptism of water obtains forgiveness of sin; baptism of blood earns the crown of righteousness.”
How glorious that Werner at the age of 46, and his two children aged only 15 and 17, received the crown of righteousness as they entered eternity.(2)
The summit of faith
Martyrdom was the zenith of faith at a time when being a Jesus-follower was punishable by torture and death. Since then, accounts of “willing and self-sacrificing death” or severe suffering for faith have filled Christian history. Martyrs have also died or suffered due to the application of their faith to political ideals or social structures, and these too have been venerated and remembered. The list of Christian martyrs is wide and deep through time and geography, stretching from Stephen in Jerusalem (c. 34) and St. Irene in Thessalonica (304), to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany (1945), Oscar Romero in El Salvador (1980), Werner, Jean-Pierre, Rode in Afghanistan (2014) and thousands inbetween.
But what really makes a martyr? Witnesses essentially have only one task: to tell the truth. What did you see? What do you know? What happened? Yet scholars have pointed out that early Christian martyrdom involved not only telling the truth, but also enduring the hatred of those who rejected the truth. Both elements mattered – one’s truth-telling and the other’s hatred – and these were never in short supply.
For Werner and his family the route to martyrdom lay not only in the fact that their lives were witness to the Truth but also the fact that they found themselves amongst people who hated the One they represented. As a family they knew this and they prepared themselves to be witnesses, come what may. They understood that genuine martyrdom involves the commitment to a truth that is so overwhelmingly important that justice is better served by suffering than it is by evading it if that means abandoning the truth.
Martyrdom and community
Elizabeth Castelli in Martyrdom and Memory (2004) argues that the act of martyrdom involves a relationship with a community, which gives meaning to death and suffering. Early Christian martyrs were esteemed by fellow believers who valued their truth-telling, their testimonies. Modern martyr narratives also include elements of communal remembrance. The case of a Bonhoeffer or a Romero reveals the shared creation and sustenance of martyr narratives. Those who have resisted hatred and have stood for the truth of the gospel of Christ, a gospel of peace, have spoken not only to their immediate communities, but have influenced a wide-reaching audience that must now weigh their words and their actions.
This is indeed true for the Groenewald family as well. Their love for the Afghan community has ministered to all who knew them, South African and Afghan, Christian and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever, friend and enemy.
Martyrdom has represented the highest degree of sacrifice of life and liberty and has involved the presence of a just cause, self-sacrifice for the benefit of others; it relinquishes immediate or future personal benefit. Yet most of us, rightly, do not aspire to martyrdom. To suffer an untimely death or torture due to one’s faith devalues human dignity and violates a basic human right. Martyrdom reveals the use of violence in the abusive exercise of power over others.
Yet, in its most ancient sense, like Werner and his family proved, we are all called to be witnesses, to be truth-tellers. We are today, as Jesus foresaw, at the ends of the earth. In all places – our homes, our neighbourhoods, and our places of employment – we are the ones whom Christ has called to speak about what we have seen, what we have experienced, what we know. Many today, in places all over the earth, still bear witness to the point of death. Most of us will not. Yet the presence of martyrs among us – historically and presently – calls us to remember the task Jesus assigned to us.
May the death of Werner and his children as witness-bearers be the fuel for more courage in our ministries for Christ. May the news of their martyrdom make us more courageous in investing for the Lord and make our voices louder than before. May the life of Hannelie Groenewald, who was spared death but who now faces the “martyrdom” of life, be the inspiration that to live is Christ but to die is gain3
May their sacrifice never be forgotten.
2 2Timothy 4:6-8 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.