I was surprised to find my favorite Tweeter, Dan White, featured in an interview in the New York Times: “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country” (First Person, July 21, 2022). There he was sprouting in an unusual, new place like an Anabaptish weed.
Dan and his wife now direct the Kino Center in Puerto Rico. He was well known as a pastor and a teacher of pastors. But in the last few years he has become well known for being an ex-pastor. Maybe history will see him as one of the martyrs for their third-way faith. I think there are a few of those martyrs from my former church looking to sprout somewhere. They are among the hundreds of U.S. pastors and others who have been traumatized by the spasm of power grabbing convulsing the U.S.
Dan White was an innovative, fearless church reformer himself, but his unifying message was drowned in the sea of division and combat that has flooded the world and the church. I was talking to another pastor, another victim, last week and the only reason he could see for his plight came from a line from the Bible: people are subject to the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2 NRSVA). There is “something in the air,” isn’t there!
Talking about “martyrs” may seem an hysterical way to talk about people like Dan White. But Christians have experienced martyrdom in one way or another in every age of the church as they speak up about their faith. Tertullian is famous for saying in the year 197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The treatment of my spiritual ancestors, the radical reformers of the 1500’s and before, is collected in a famous book called the Martyr’s Mirror. Martin Luther King was a martyr, along with John Lewis. Today, Jesus followers in India are being hounded by Hindu nationalists; and U.S. Christians are often hounded by Hinduish media myth makers.
Red, white and blue/green martyrs
As I was meditating through Margaret Guenther’s Book, Toward Holy Ground, I was intrigued by her reference to different colors assigned to different types of martyrs throughout Christian history. She was mainly interested in helping me affirm how wonderful it is, as an older Jesus follower, to discover the “marvelous freedom of living deliberately yet carelessly” as a “green” martyr who knows “the heroism and the sanctity of faithfulness to the ordinary,” who appreciates the discipline of the craftsman and has learned the patience of the harvester.
The original impulse of assigning different colors of martyrdom mainly had to do with different ways people “died daily” with Jesus. The colors mainly had to do with the way people expressed their religion – not the idea of “religion” born during the Enlightenment and subsequently expanded during the reordering of philosophical frameworks according to the scientific method (see here), but religion in its original sense of living under a “religio,” a rule (which is becoming popular again these days). The witness that leads to martyrdom is almost always more about how one lives than what one says.
The early Jesus followers had a rule of life which was so distinct from their society they were tagged as “Christians.” Their various rules came up against Roman and other rulers and got them killed. A Christian martyr gets in trouble because she follows the Ruler as a rule, even if she breaks the rules of the power of the air.
When Christianity started morphing into the government in the Roman Empire, Jesus followers sat in the seat of power and often found it practical to align with the “spirit at work among the disobedient.” So some Jesus followers longed for the experience of being beyond what the powers considered normal. This is a common development in spiritual enterprises; if you don’t keep transforming, something’s gotta give. For instance, the Benedictine monastic order started off as a brilliant adaptation to the chaos of the 6th century. Two hundred years later it was still going and expanding! But it needed reforming. Odo of Cluny helped do that. His reforming monastery ended up as one of the most influential institutions in Europe for another 500 years! But it got stagnant and corrupted, too. French revolutionaries were so sick of what the church had become, they literally tore down the huge church building in Cluny. (I saw the remnant). Something seems to be ‘giving” right now in the U.S., as well.
We all understand red martyrs. Red stands for blood. I grew up in my non-Christian home schooled by old movies about martyrs like Quo Vadis. That clip still gets my own blood stirred up.
By the 3rd and 4th centuries, some Christians missed the clarifying threat of red martyrdom. Their impulse to go beyond what had become normal created “white” martyrs. Jerome (347-420) created this new category of martyr “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.”
In Medieval Europe the impulse of the desert fathers and mothers was woven into most religion. So people looked farther, like the first monastics did. It became very popular for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the sites or relics of martyrs, putting themselves in the danger of not being able to get home or dying on the road. For instance, my hero, Francis of Assisi, made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1219 in an attempt to convert Sultan al-Kamil and put an end to the 5th Crusade
The Celtic Church added the category of “green” martyrs (or blue), basically “glas.” Irish doesn’t really have a good cognate for green or blue in translation and “glas” is much more descriptive than either (see here). Glas is more specific to a place or natural phenomenon and less distinct as a concept, which is one of the reasons Celtic Christianity appeals to me. Glas martyrs experienced a kind of martyrdom by devoting themselves to practical rules in their own place, maybe even attached to a place, like Cuthbert wading into the water every day to pray (according to Bede), or monks living on Skellig Michael (which is glas in the picture above).
The martyr colors need an update
The red martyr has the feel of “I need to stand firm in an evil day” (Eph. 6:13). Red martyrdom usually comes upon people rather than them seeking it, like what happened to the kind people killed by Dylan Root. There are still red martyrs. Coptic churches are blown up. The Chinese government threatens the burgeoning church there. Inequities and violence sap the capacity of many brilliant servants in the U.S. I think a pastor, like Dan White, or anyone whose ministry is ended or hobbled by the power-hungry authoritarian elements rising up everywhere could be considered a red martyr. They are not killed, perhaps, but they are traumatized and often neutered.
The white martyr has the feel of “I’ve got to get out of this place” ( 2 Cor. 6:1-7:10). People are leaving the church in droves, looking for something more and getting out from under dominating leaders and moribund thinking. Any church leader who is mostly focused on getting or keeping power probably has a philosophy about to become moribund. In the U.S., people leave churches or kick out their leaders because their white supremacist/heteronormative denomination won’t change their hurtful theological statements; then people leave the newly cleansed churches because they have to toe the line to a legalistic application of the new theology, which is also non-inclusive and power-driven. Evacuations from church war zones reflect the spirit of the white martyrs of old who could not not tolerate the worldliness of their church.
The original white martyrs fled to the Egyptian desert. Their medieval imitators “fled” on pilgrimages. Americans go on some great pilgrimages, too (as you know I do). But I think their best contribution to white martyrdom is creating alternative communities in self-defined “wildernesses” in which to flee (I have done a bit of that myself). In an anti-institutional age (for good reason) people get out by getting small and getting communal. I know many people who have exited their church but held on to the small group where they got most of their face-to-face faith. Sometimes people get very small and intimate. As a newly-credentialed spiritual director, I know first hand that new spiritual directors are rapidly being minted for a lot of one-to-one Christianity (SDI has 6000 members!). Like Jesus followers have often done, people are escaping the ruins of old institutions and chaos.
Green martyrs have the feel of “This is not radical enough for me” (1 Peter). That’s not “radical” in the sense of extreme (although extremists have a similar motivation) but radical in the sense of intense, focused, true, basic. I think there are a lot of new green martyrs these days, looking around town for community, looking for a good rule of life in step with the Ruler. The church is not what is used to be even three years ago! Many people I know feel a new freedom, a new sense of urgency, new inspiration. Their old way of life did not survive Covid or survive the evils associated with the ascendance of Christian nationalism. The expression of their faith is experiencing the renaissance of starting from scratch and imagining being faithful in their new surroundings.
Maybe Dan White is a green martyr out of necessity, cast out of the institution he created, living on his island, collecting the like-minded and like-wounded, appreciating the sacred in the ordinary, crafting something beautful, and harvesting his small garden — a green martyr despite his wound. Maybe nurses and teachers, Christian or not, should be considered green martyrs since they devote themselves to the common good in a specific place without recognition or pay even when the spirit of the air tries to tear down what they build up every day. Maybe you are a green martyr despite your wound and you should secretly wear the name to get some comfort as you stick with a day-to-day faith which is basic to you but hard to plant in a post-Covid world.