Sunday, December 13, 2009

Cox's Book of Modern Saints and Martyrs

By Caroline Cox, 214 pages, Continuum Publishing.

The Christianity portrayed in Cox's Book of Modern Saints and Martyrs adopts an adversarial dialogue with society. The values it preaches counter those of society and governments.

El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, who became the voice of the poor and was murdered for it, exemplifies this approach. The Catholic Church in Poland also played this role. Deeply rooted in its society, it championed the people's freedom against the Communists. Its symbols, such as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa and a new church, initially forbidden, in Krakow's suburb Nowa Huta, became the symbols of freedom and the peaceful opposition to oppression.

Caroline Cox includes the gory details in many of the stories, of people being literally butchered for their beliefs. She uses the words of Christian martyrs or their families to write a clear theology. Bishop Pargev Martirosyan of Nagorno Karabakh, she writes, said demanding words: “If we want God's victory, we must love. Even if there are demonic forces at work, not only in this conflict, but in other parts of the world, we must still love—we must always love.”

Real people personify Cox's theology (and she does include photos of some in the book), as with the sad example of the murder of a warm, dedicated Russian priest, Father Alexander Men, killed in 1990 with an ax: “He had the gift of living completely in the present: everyone who spoke to him felt that he was concerned only with them in the whole world. And he had a deep sense of humour and a gaiety that sprang from his faith.”

Cox's vignettes give the book two important, even rare aspects in religious writing: First, she carefully selects stories that witness to the strength that these people received from their faith. “Witness” is the meaning of “martyr” in Greek. Second, the vignettes hit the reader with an immediacy, stress, and even desperation.

Because Cox's message about martyrs is ultimately the Christian message, she includes the hope-filled words of many sufferers. Metropolitan Veniamin of Petrograd (1874-1922) spoke to a crowd in 1918 to a group of believers: “They thought that by granting freedom to licence and to human passions, by promising all earthly goods, by showering money, that they would force people to forget heaven, forget God, forget conscience.”

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