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Reflecting on the New Guinea Martyrs

New Guinea Martyrs, 3 September, 2006
Linda Kurti, Head of ABM Australia

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this morning and I thank Fr John for his invitation to preach on this weekend of commemoration for the Martyrs of Papua New Guinea. It is a particular honour to be here in a parish with such a long and committed history in supporting the Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea, and ABM.

I was fortunate enough to visit Gona, one of the mission stations where two of the martyrs died, in February of this year. Gona Health Centre still provides essential primary and secondary health care services to the local villages. In 1942, this care was given by a young Australian nurse named May Hayman. Today, the children's ward of the health centre is named after May. This is one of the many ways in which the witness of the martyrs lives on in PNG.

The story of the martyrs of PNG is very much Australia's story, as much as it is PNG's. It is one of the many bonds which ties the two countries, and churches, together. If you are not familiar with the stories of the martyrs, then I commend to you the new booklet on the martyrs which is available to download on the ABM website. The ten Australian Anglican missionaries, and two Papua New Guinean evangelists, who died at the hands of the Japanese are only some of the 313 missionaries and religious workers who died during the occupation of PNG. The ten Australians were those who had believed that God had called them to offer for missionary service through ABM, and went to PNG to serve God's people. Some had been there for years, some for only months. They believed that in living out their faith in service, they were following the example of Jesus. And in following Jesus, these 12 also gave their lives rather than seek the easier road of safety and security.

The Bishop of Newcastle said in a speech given at an ABM meeting in Sydney in 1943: "I know of no incident in the whole missionary history of the Church more thrilling and, at the same time, more humbling, than the decision of the Bishop of New Guinea and his staff to remain at their posts amongst their children of the Faith, despite the obvious and terrible risks to which their decision would expose them. They were offered the chance of evacuation to Australia; every pressure was brought upon them to accept it; every consideration of worldly prudence counseled acceptance. Yet they stayed, Why? Because there was one consideration in their hearts which outweighed all others. They were convinced that the Christ Who had called them in the first instance to follow Him to Papua was calling them to remain. So they remained...The whole incident, I say, is both inspiring and humiliating. It fills us, or should fill us, both with pride and with shame. Pride in the thought that our Church can still produce the human material of which saints and martyrs are made. And shame, as we contrast the quality of their discipleship with ours, the niggardliness of the support we have given to them with the splendour and completeness of their own self-offering."[1]

The words of the Gospel reading today brought to mind the Bishops' words, because in accepting the risks which they were taking by remaining true to what they understood was their calling, the ABM missionaries who died in PNG were living out what Jesus calls us to do. The acceptance of Jesus' teaching that death is ultimately meaningless against the eternal presence and love of God is a powerful and, to my weak and frail person, difficult aspect of Christian faith. What does it mean to say, those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them for eternal life? Does it mean, as it has sometimes been interpreted, that we are to literally hate this world and all its bounty and goodness? That we are to shun enjoyment and to live in anticipation of death? Or does it mean that we are to so love God that nothing, as Paul says, can separate us from that love? And how do we do that, in our own lives, where we may not experience dramatic circumstances but rather the ordinary mundane regularity of quiet and sometimes troubled lives? How do we say yes to God's call?

Madeleine Albright in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty: reflections on power, God and world affairs, tells the story of a young Lebanese Christian woman whose village had been overrun by a Muslim militia during the war of the 1980s. The woman, Mary, had had a gun pointed at her and been asked to renounce Christ. Upon her refusal to do so, the militiaman shot her in the neck, severing her spine. Having then carved a cross on her chest, he left her to die. However, the next day the militiamen returned to the village and having found her, amazingly, still alive, they took her to the hospital where she survived, scarred and paralysed. Mary was asked why, having shot her one day, the men took her to the hospital the next, and she replied, "sometimes bad people are taught to do good things." When asked further how she felt about the man who shot her she replied, "I have forgiven him", stating as her reason that she forgave because God had forgiven her.[2]

Mary's story stayed with me because it is rare that we hear the voice of someone who was nearly a martyr. We don't know what the martyrs of PNG thought or felt in their last days and moments, whether they were frightened, or whether they were strengthened by God to feel a great calm as they confronted those who would kill them. We don't know personally what it's like to know that you are going to die because of your faith, except through the voices of those like Mary. When I read her story recently, I thought of the martyrs of PNG, of young women like May Hayman and Mavis Parkinson, of priests like Vivian Redlich and Henry Holland, of PNG evangelists Lucian Tapiedi and Leslie Gariardi. Those who died, and those who die today for their faith, did not renounce the world and deny the abundance of the creation which God has provided, to seek a martyrdom of virtue and piety. They were living fully and completely, getting engaged and making plans for the future, as Vivian Redlich and May Hayman had done. They were committed to friends and neighbours in the communities where they lived, fully engaged in pastoral or nursing duties and only fleeing their homes when it became clear that their presence endangered the local people among whom they lived as the Japanese advanced. These were people who were in the fullness of life, who saw and sought a future, but who recognised and accepted that at any point they would be required to let that future go.

Albright makes the point that religious faith has two sides – that people are willing to die, and to kill, for their faith, but that religion also teaches, in Mary's words, bad people to do good. It is those finer instincts within us which may lie dormant until we too are confronted with situations which are so stark for us that we are called quite suddenly to act with courage we didn't know we had. It is these instincts which God calls us to heed when we follow Jesus, in love for God, even when we don't know where we will be led. Why should we follow Jesus when it could be so difficult, even dangerous? For me, the answer lies in the Good News which Jesus proclaimed, that God has forgiven us all our frailities, all our imperfections, and loves us so fully and deeply that I have hope that I may at least some of the time live according to those finer instincts which God has implanted in me. Having experienced that love, nothing that God asks us to do is too much – to live well, to die with grace, to forsake family or friends or comfort or dreams. It doesn't mean that we might be happy about it – in fact, happiness as an outcome becomes completely irrelevant in the knowledge that the road we are following is one to which we are called. We may not be happy, but we can be faithful. Jesus himself knew that this was difficult. He says, my soul is troubled. Surely Jesus himself, being human, would have liked to have had God save him from his impending torture and death. The fact that he himself asks the question implies that at least the thought had occurred to him, and he had rejected it. This notion, that in dying a grain of wheat may bear fruit, that in suffering we may in fact contribute to the healing of God's world, this is the sustaining belief which can help us, in our lives, not necessarily to be martyrs but to face whatever challenges come to us in our own lives with grace.

What the martyrs have given to us, to the church in PNG and the church in Australia, to the worldwide church, is an example of that selfless acceptance of the risks of loving and serving God. St Paul knew this acceptance well. Just before the passage which we heard today, Paul writes "we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." It is because of this knowledge that Paul can go on to say that despite what we face, despite facing emotional, spiritual or relational challenges, despite having a lack of food or clothing or living in danger of one's life, despite not knowing that there might be an end to our current suffering – no matter what comes to us in our lives, ultimately the love of God will bring us through. In my comfortable life with enough to eat and wear and a roof over my head, those words can sound familiar but not immediate. But in my days of challenge, when I wonder how I will live through whatever has confronted me, these words take on a new meaning. The martyrs of PNG show us that it is possible for ordinary people, teachers and nurses, carpenters and evangelists, priests and boatmen, people like us, to live fully in response to Jesus' call to serve and follow. They lived fully in this life, and at the same time had the courage to die. They give us hope that if they can do it, perhaps we can too. I have never had to face a man with a gun to my head, to know that this moment would be my last, but I hope that in my day of challenge, whatever it might be, I will be able to face suffering with grace, and to say with Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And knowing that, to be able to say yes.

Notes
[1] ABM Review, (1943) Missions yesterday, today and tomorrow", August 1, p 111-112.
[2] Albright, M. (2006) The Mighty and the Almighty: reflections on power, God, and world affairs. London: Macmillan. p 67.


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