Recently I was trying to get round Parliament Square in Westminster just after the unveiling of the statue of Nelson Mandela, himself one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, and the delay gave me a chance to look again at the statues erected above the west door of Westminster Abbey in 1998 - ten figures of Christian martyrs of the twentieth century, drawn from every continent and different denominations. They remind us of the cost of being true to oneís beliefs, and of the continuing persecution of those who dare to stand up for what is right.
November is a month of remembrance, inspired by the Churchís remembrance of all its unnamed saints and all the faithful departed at the beginning of the month. The First World War added Armistice Day, which after the Second World War gave place to Remembrance Sunday, when we remember with respect and gratitude all who died in those great conflicts and in the lesser wars of ensuing years.
The Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century commemorated outside Westminster Abbey challenge us to expand our remembrance to include all who have made great sacrifices for the benefit of others. Each one represents many other victims of tyranny, fanaticism, dictatorship, prejudice and brutality. They include Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, murdered in 1977 by the troops of Idi Amin (perhaps by the President himself) for his opposition to the unchecked violence of the security forces, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who stood out against the oppression of the poor and the abuse of human rights by a repressive government. He was shot at the altar in 1980 while saying Mass. There are also the human rights leader, Martin Luther King, assassinated in Memphis in 1968, the Chinese pastor Wang Zhiming, executed in front of a mass rally of over 10,000 people during the Cultural Revolution, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, a member of the Russian royal family, who renounced her status to take religious vows and care for orphans, but who was murdered by the revolutionaries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leaders of the German Christians who refused to make an accommodation with the Nazi regime, and Esther John (Qamar Zia), an Indian Christian whose Muslim family had to flee to Pakistan at partition, and who was brutally murdered in 1960 because her faith was seen as a threat to the established order of her community.
One of the most inspiring of these heroes is the Polish Franciscan priest, Maximilian Kolbe, a prisoner in Auschwitz. When a prisoner from his block escaped, the commandant ordered that ten prisoners should be locked in an airtight cell as a reprisal and left to die. One of those selected begged to be spared because he had a wife and children, and Fr Kolbe stepped forward to take his place.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" - words of Jesus that we shall recall on Remembrance Sunday. The statues above the abbey door illustrate them powerfully. In November, old comrades will think again of the sacrifice of those who died alongside them in war, but we can all ponder the vision of the future that inspired them and countless others who have striven, often against enormous odds and at great personal cost, to make our world a fairer, better place. True remembrance should motivate all of us to renewed efforts to preserve all that is good in our society and change what is bad, and increase our prayers and activity for the coming of Godís Kingdom.
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About the Vicar's Letter
The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.
The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the Vicar's Letter area for these.