Stainde-glass window of St Perpetua of Carthage (church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France, 19th century): martyrdom of St Pepetua and her fellows in the stadium of Carthage; saint Felicity on her left/Wikipedia photo by Gaetan Poix

“Virgin Martyrs” and Safety in Church

By Andy CastroLang

As a Roman Catholic girl in the 60’s, I was given the book, “Sixty Saints for Girls” and I quickly discovered that in the hierarchy of saints for girls to emulate and honor, the “virgin martyrs” were the greatest. These were the young women who died for their faith in the early 300’s and 400’s. They died, usually, in really gruesome ways.

Perpetua and Felicity are in there. Perpetua was 22 when, after being imprisoned for declaring herself a Christian, she was led into a stadium to die, being set upon by a wild cow (during military games in honor of the Roman Emperor), then killed with a sword. She was a nursing mother. Felicity was a slave who died at the same time with Perpetua. She gave birth in prison only days before she was led out to be killed with Felicity (and three other men). At first they were mauled by wild beasts and then finally put out of their suffering by being executed with the sword. Barbara was in this little book too (beheaded), so is Lucy (the wood on her pyre wouldn’t burn her alive, so she was beheaded), so is Agnes (dragged through the streets naked, her pyre wouldn’t light either, so she was stabbed in the throat).

Ok, so this little excursus on early virgin martyrs may seem gruesome, but it is a reminder that this is part of being church.

Martyrdom for the Christian faith continues to this day, though it is certainly not fashionable to talk about it in the United States. Among the mainline Protestant churches of which I am a part, I almost never hear of it. To be a martyr is to be a witness to your faith in Jesus Christ and his church. This includes any and all witness you give, up to and including the witness you offer at your death. The Charleston Nine were martyrs, and they were murdered just weeks ago.

I do not want to fault any church communion for denying the truth of martyrdom, I simply want to reassert something that we are perhaps overlooking in the American churches; to be a follower of Jesus as the Christ is not a safe thing. It has never been so. If we think Sunday morning is safe, then we have been lulled into a false sense of security.

The sick and the suffering come to church. Rich and poor come to Christ’s church. And in Christ’s church will be a message of freedom from chains, and healing and joy; there will be a word of new life, of resurrection power, of beauty from the ashes of despair, of power for change; but there will not be a promise of safety.

The world in many places and many times has already shown us that it considers the churches of Jesus dangerous. They are outlawed in many nations. Four little girls were killed by a bomb at the 16th St. Baptist church in 1963. Christians are even now driven out of their homes and lands; Christians are beheaded by religious fanatics right now. Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, was gunned down in the middle of celebrating mass, in 1980. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight members of Emmanuel AME were summarily shot in the midst of Bible study.

No, church is not safe. Who said it would be?

Of course I want the people who enter the sacred space at Westminster UCC to feel the peace of God, the safety of sanctuary, the love of Jesus in the people who gather there.

But we will not be “safe.” We have been, and we will continue to be, picketed by haters outside our doors. We have in the past, and we will certainly again, face mentally ill folk who might be unsafe to themselves or us. We may draw the dangerous attention of a domestic terrorist, a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, fearful soul with a gun. We will strive to be alert, and aware of the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst. But truly, we will have to recognize that we entrust our souls and our lives to the heart of God, our true safety.

  • No, church is not safe. And our society has too much easy access to guns, so we will work to rein that in through whatever legal means we can.
  • No, church is not safe, because our nation has a broken safety net for the sick and fearful so we will advocate and educate to change this as much as we can.
  • No, church is not safe, but it is beautiful and joyous; it is welcoming and healing, and it is filled with the witness of the all-encompassing love of God, so it is where I want to be.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Safety in Worship” at 10 a.m. Aug. 1 at Indaba Coffee/The Book Parlor, 1425 W. Broadway. CastroLang is a panelist.

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Andy — I like how you discuss some beliefs which I think of as relatively modern, that church is a place where bad things don’t happen and say why that just isn’t so.

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