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Martyrdom: the seed of renewal

14 August 2015

Peter Selby recalls a 20th-century witness against racism, and what he teaches us today

Remembered: Jonathan Daniels, an Anglican seminarian who was killed 50 years ago while working for civil rights in Alabama

Remembered: Jonathan Daniels, an Anglican seminarian who was killed 50 years ago while working for civil rights in Alabama

"MARTYRDOM, as you in particular know, is not confined to history." With these words, the Archbishop of Canterbury greeted a group assembled in June to honour the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels, an American seminarian killed in Hayneville, Alabama, 50 years ago next Thursday.

Those of us who were assembled to mark this anniversary had been Jonathan’s fellow students. At the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1965, we lived through the news of Jonathan’s murder and its effect on us as a community in training for ministry. That shared experience had the power to sustain friendships over five decades, and without question marked our lives and our subsequent ministries.

More than that, the event continues to have power. With the co-operation of the Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, the anniversary was marked in June in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time, in the presence of the annual gathering of seminarians and people recently ordained from around the Anglican Communion.

Many of them needed no telling of the contemporary cost of Christian witness: they knew about it firsthand in places where simply to be a Christian is to be exposed to violence and persecution. Tertullian observed that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, and Jonathan’s death, like that of others bearing that cost in our time, is a seed planted to bear the fruit of commitment and courage in our Communion and beyond.


TO CALL his death a martyrdom is to make a direct connection with the calling that led him to be on the receiving end of the hatred that killed him. After the Selma-to-Montgomery march, in which many of us had joined at Martin Luther King Jr’s invitation, we had returned to our studies — except that, as Magnificat was sung one evening in the seminary chapel, Jonathan and a fellow student, Judy Upham, heard Mary’s song as a call to return to the South to continue the electoral registration of African-Americans in Alabama.

That they would encounter hostility was certain; so also to be expected were the suspicions of the black families with whom they stayed, born of the centuries of discrimination. But, after having been arrested with others, and then suddenly released, they encountered, as they sought to buy a drink at a grocery store, the power of a Deputy Sheriff’s gun: Jonathan was killed outright; a Roman Catholic priest who was with him was critically injured. Jonathan had thrust aside one of his black friends, Ruby Sales, or she might well have died, too.


OUR coming to terms with his death was made all the harder when a locally gathered jury refused to convict that Deputy Sheriff even for manslaughter, in a trial that was more about impugning Jonathan’s motives than about his murderer.

Fifty years on, it was indeed a powerful reminder of those feelings when we watched the film made shortly before the Deputy Sheriff died at the age of 86, in which he said that he would do the same again. It was a salutary reminder that, while a martyrdom will change the lives of some, there will be those who are simply confirmed in the hatred that has led them to take an innocent life.

There is no doubt that those whose Christian faith has brought them — Jonathan among them — to give their lives for a world in which we honour the image of God in all God’s children have had an effect. The crushing burden of apartheid has been lifted, and we can enjoy a society in which the richness of diverse ethnicities and cultures transforms our lives for the better. The belief that racial disadvantage is an affront to the values of our society is now well and truly embedded.

But, as one of those who gathered in Canterbury in June reflected, there is a darker side to what has happened since: the entrenchment of attitudes that we might suppose innocent deaths would overcome. In our expectation of an end to racism, he reflected, we were not just complacent, but even naïve.

It is not just that one retired Deputy Sheriff would do the same again: our American friends find themselves still in a situation where there are those who hold positions of authority in law-enforcement agencies and collude in the repeating of racially motivated killings in our time.

For our part, prejudice is not far below the surface in areas of conflict. Debates about immigration and the undoubted questions about how migration on the scale that we now witness is to be managed are constantly infected by the deep fear of the stranger.


THE long walk eastward through Canterbury Cathedral to the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time gave all of us pause to reflect on the long journey we have made, and what journey there is still to travel before racism ceases to exact its toll of killings.

As the choir sang Michael Tippett’s arrangement of Deep River, and the altar was censed with the Book of Martyrs open at 20 August, the day of Jonathan’s martyrdom, we knew we had received from him, and from the Episcopal Church which formed him, a renewal of our vision of the cost of radical discipleship. It confirmed for us all God’s promise that the blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the renewal of the face of the earth.


The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

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