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Steadfast obedience, even unto death

Dr Margaret Atkins considers how following Christ has led to death for Christians from St Stephen, the first martyr, to the Rev Christopher Gray, Vicar of St Margaret's, Anfield, in Liverpool this week.
The Western Church has few modern martyrs; but it is time to remember those that she has. Last Wednesday was the anniversary of St Maximilian Kolbe, who died in 1941. A Polish friar who had refused to temper his criticism of the Nazis, he was sent to Auschwitz. One day, a group of men were arbitrarily selected and condemned to mass execution. One, a family man, broke down under the strain; Kolbe simply volunteered to take his place.

With a tragic appropriateness, Wednesday's newspapers told us of the murder of a priest in Liverpool. Christopher Gray was a gifted young man, who had accepted an uncomfortable vocation; and had refused to shelter himself from its risks. He was killed by a man he had been helping.

For the early Church, martyrdom was the archetypal Christian calling. Under the Roman empire Christians were prepared to face the dramatic choice: worship the emperor or die! What more striking proof of the Christian's love of God, of the power of Christ, in the believer, than the courage to stand firm? There seemed little difference between a true Christian and a martyr.

That is not surprising: for Christians are saints in so far as their lives are conformed to the life of Christ. And the shape of Christ's life was stark: "he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, death on a cross" (Philippians 2-8). When the empire converted and Christianity became safe, the feeling remained that martyrs were the highest form of witnesses. As the monastic movement grew, for example, ascetics interpreted their own self-denial as a form of bloodless martyrdom. Of course, there are countless types of sanctity; for Christ's life can be reflected in innumerable ways. But steadfast obedience, supremely symbolised by the martyr, underlies them all.

Less than half a century separates Maximilian Kolbe from Christopher Gray. In a striking sense, their deaths were parallel: both a consequence of their faithful and fearless obedience to the gospel. In another sense, a gulf separates them. Kolbe was a martyr in the tradition that stretches back to St Stephen. The heroes of the early church died because they refused to deny their faith. The hostility they faced was hostility to Christianity itself. Kolbe was imprisoned because he refused to keep his faith silent. His Christianity was hated because it would not compromise with a godless state.

The forces that turned themselves against Christopher Gray, as before against Philip Lawrence, were less articulate. They were not attacking Christianity as such. They were not attacking a movement, or an ideal. The violence that lies so near the surface of our society frightens us by its very mindlessness and unpredictability. We are unlikely to die because we are Christians. But we may die because we happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Or perhaps the right place. For Philip Lawrence and Christopher Gray both chose to be where they were most needed. The typical saint of our generation is not Maximilian Kolbe, but Mother Teresa: less the brave prophet than the unwearying servant of the poor. Lawrence and Gray were cast in her mould, Christians who obeyed the call to serve in unprivileged places. Gray's talents would quickly have opened the door of a comfortable college common room. He lived instead in Anfield, and accepted with open eyes the physical threat that was inseparable from his work.

Gray was in the wrong place at the wrong time simply because he obeyed his Christian calling without compromise. Mindless violence strikes the target that is nearest; and therefore the most vulnerable are those who serve the neediest. But the quiet everyday struggles of teachers and of clergy are noticed only when tragedy strikes. I am reminded of another priest I know, a patient and dedicated man, who had served a city parish for a decade, enduring a daily grind of threats and insults from aggressive beggars, repeatedly cleaning up his vandalised or desecrated church. There must be many another like him.

Christian love is shaped by obedience, and fortified by courage. These are unfashionable virtues, proclaimed neither by tired Conservative consumerism, nor by ambitious New Labour. Their implications are too radical, too disturbing, to be embraced by the establishment. They find their form, their justification, their strength, and their reward, only in Christ.

Real concrete sanctity is shocking. For most of us, heroic obedience will remain an ideal to challenge us rather than an example for us follow. But in another sense men and women like Christopher Gray can comfort us. For they point to the places that seem most desolate, most dangerous, most God-forsaken; and they show us that Christ himself is there.