The nine Bible study attenders murdered in Charleston were targeted for their race but they can rightly be honored as Christian martyrs, slain in their church while examining God’s Word and offering hospitality to the disturbed visitor who became their killer.
Martyrs are typically pictured by Americans as only fearless, exotic people overseas, or long ago, targeted by powerful rulers or invaders, like ISIS, Stalin, Mao, or in ancient Rome by depraved emperors. But the Charleston martyrs were ordinary people, meeting routinely in their church, in supposed relative safety, doubtless never anticipating they would die violently, much less together, on a quiet evening in their beautiful city.
Likely their witness and example, broadcast globally, amplified further by the amazing worship at their reopened church, will contribute to many, many over the years and decades heeding the Gospel and meeting the Charleston martyrs in Heaven. Perhaps some redeemed souls already have.
The martyrs probably never dreamed their example and sacrifice would reach millions, with eternal consequences for some, perhaps ultimately a lot. But as students of the Bible, they already knew that their God often redeems evil, horror and suffering, as He did most powerfully with the torments of His Son. These outwardly average people on earth now occupy positions of honor in Heaven among the saints, full recipients of divine grace, living in the mansions of The Lord set in a city where there is no darkness because God Himself is their Light.
Last Sunday morning I was sitting in a Holiday Inn Express breakfast room, where the television broadcast the worship from Charleston. Everyone while eating their biscuits and sweet rolls listened attentively and quietly, as the preacher effusively proclaimed Jesus. It didn’t look like any of the breakfasters were heading to church afterwards, but they got plenty of church there at the Holiday Inn Express. I doubt any hotel guests forgot what they heard, even if the memory bears no fruit until far in the future, in a time of need or urgency.
So many social, political, and sociological assertions have been projected onto the story of the Charleston martyrs that their own story as not untypical followers and seekers of Christ has been obscured. Maybe their martyrdom is only the small part of a vast historical narrative about race and oppression across centuries.
But it’s also about small acts of faithfulness that led to global and eternal significance for God’s Kingdom. A demented young man, escaping his dysfunctional family, pursued darkness, unable to find kindred twisted spirits, instead finds sinister validation on the internet. Committed to murder, he unexpectedly meets friendly saints whose kindness gives him pause before he kills, hoping to spread his poison through publicity.
His crime is instead overshadowed by the faith and hope of his victims and their church. We should join the families of those victims in praying that the killer, before he leaves this world, hopefully in the administration of swift justice, accepts the God whom he defied, and can meet in Heaven the martyrs he sought to destroy, instead falling before them in holy sorrow and recompense, honoring them as the instruments of his own redemption.
The ultimate story about the Charleston martyrs is not about the sins of a particular culture or nation but about the far wider and exponentially more powerful demonstration that God’s love is undefeatable, even in a hail of bullets. Whatever happens to their defeated killer, the Charleston martyrs will reign forever with Christ, in Whose sufferings they shared, and in Whose glory they now partake.