There were more martyrs for the Christian faith in the last century than in any previous century. I am not totally sure about this fact but I think there were possibly more martyrs in the 20th century than in all the previous 19 centuries total. This fact is clear: martyrdom is still a major trial for the church and there is little or no evidence that it is declining in the 21st century.
My good friend Dr. Timothy George is the Dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
Beeson Divinity School is one of my top-five schools for training ministers in America. It is evangelical, ecumenical and outward looking in an unusual way. It has a superb faculty and is a great place to get into a smallish community of learners and worshipers. I have frequently recommended Beeson and not one student I have urged to enroll there has ever regretted it.
I bring this up because the chapel at Beeson is one of the most magnificent seminary chapels in all of America. Dr. George's thoughtful engagement in planning this magnificent chapel shows in every possible way. One of the more amazing aspects of the Beeson chapel is that the area where the pulpit is located has a rotunda above it that has the look of a balcony.
Around the balcony are great men and women of the faith looking down upon the worship of the church on earth from their place above. There is Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon and a host of others. Even the pulpit has a carving of one of the great preachers of the church.
One of the more important aspects of the Beeson Chapel design is that martyrs are also prominently featured, as they should be. One of the martyrs prominently feature there is Bishop Janani Luwum (d. 1977). Bishop Luwum was the leader of the Anglican Church of Uganda under Idi Amin's reign of terror during the 1970s. (The Last King of Scotland, an award winning film, portrays the reign of Amin quite graphically and very powerfully.) Amin personally killed Bishop Luwum on February 16, 1977. That same year the church marked its 100th anniversary in Uganda. The blood of this wonderful bishop eventually became the seed of a new church in Uganda, one with spiritual power and fidelity matched by none.
Janani Luwum was ordained in 1956 while Uganda was still a protectorate of Great Britain. He was an active leader in the East African Revival and frequently told his congregations: "God does not have grand-children; He only has sons and daughters." By this simple statement he urged people to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not a second-hand one. The East African Revival was one of the greatest movements of the Holy Spirit in the 20th century. It taught millions to trust God and to live through hard times with faith. It prepared Christians both to live well and to die well.
Bishop Luwum was accused of treason, a atypical Amin charge against anyone who didn't give complete obeisance to him. Death was then sure to follow. Luwum said to Amin, "We must see the hand of God in this." The bishop's trouble with Amin actually began when he criticized the abuse of human rights in Uganda in order to protect his own people and the lives of others. "Public executions, disappearances and expulsions abounded," says writer Mark Fackler. To criticize Amin during his eight-year reign of terror was to invite certain death. But Luwum knew he had to speak up for his people and neither feared Amin or death. He gladly faced his own martyrdom in order to speak truth to power and to show real Christian love.
After Luwum was shot his family and some of the bishops were forced to flee the country. But the church continued to survive under intense persecution. In April of 1979 the regime fell to the joint forces of Ugandan rebels and Tanzanian troops. Amin fled and died outside of Uganda many years later. Today the church in Uganda thrives and the gospel is changing lives with incredible power.
Standing in the pulpit at the Beeson Chapel I have looked at this bust of Janani Luwum and been powerfully reminded that the martyrs should always be a major part of the Christian story. In my own lifetime this man of God, Janani Luwum, laid down his life freely in order to be faithful to Christ.
I am also reminded of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church. From 36 A.D. until the present moment in history the martyrs have played a huge role in the faithful witness of Christ to his people and to the watching world. Surely you and I can do no less than be faithful in life and, if called upon, be faithful in death. We should all "die daily" if we truly desire to follow Jesus Christ. Martyrs like Luwum speak powerfully to all of us.