Martyrs Then and Now

Icon of the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs beheaded by ISIL on the Libyan coast in 2015

Today is Martyrs Day in Malawi. The martyrs being remembered are those who gave their lives in Malawi’s struggle for independence. Events of 1959 and 1960 are becoming distant memories by now but it is still good to be reminded that the political independence that Malawi enjoys was not acquired cheaply or easily. For some, it was so important that they put their lives on the line.

The concept of martyrdom, of course, comes from Christian history. It recognises those who were prepared to die for their faith. At a time when faith is sometimes regarded as a harmless pastime – akin to classical music or country dancing – it might be salutary to be reminded that there have been those to whom Christianity was so precious that they would rather lose their lives than deny their faith.

Nor are the martyrs found only in ancient times. When the All Africa Conference of Churches held its founding meeting at Kampala in 1963, it was addressed by Dr Kofi Busia, the renowned Ghanaian academic and politician, who evoked the strength of African Christianity by recalling those who had died for the faith. After recounting some historical incidents he recalled his own Methodist home chapel at Cape Coast, Ghana, where the pulpit bore a plaque with the inscription which as a young boy he had seen many times: “The first five missionaries to the Gold Coast lie buried beneath this pulpit.” 

Here in Malawi if you went to places like Cape Maclear or Bandawe you could find missionary graves that tell a similar story. Busia could have gone on to mention the young men who died as martyrs in Buganda in the 1880s. And we could continue the story of those whose Christian witness has cost them their lives – down to the 21 Christian migrant workers executed by ISIL on the Libyan coast in 2015 or Fr Richard Masivi Kasereka, the Catholic priest who was assassinated in the DRC in February 2022.

Life is precious but the witness of the noble line of martyrs reminds us that there have been some who have discovered that which is even more precious than life itself.

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