‘Won’t back down’

A reflection on Bernard Mizeki, catechist of the faith and martyr

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“Well I won’t back down; No I won’t back down; You can stand me up at the gates of Hell; But I won’t back down.”

I’ve always loved those lyrics from Tom Petty’s 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down.” They speak of courage, steadfastness — a refusal to cut and run in the face of what this world throws at us. These words came to mind when I reflected on 19th Century Anglican catechist and martyr Bernard Mizeki, whose feast day is June 18.

Born in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, in about 1861, Bernard moved to Capetown, South Africa, at the young age of 12 to find work. At night, he escaped the rough, drunken surroundings of his fellow laborers to study at an Anglican school, where he was taught by brothers of the Society of Saint John the Mizeki1Evangelist (SSJE), an Anglican religious order for men.

Under the influence of the Anglican brothers he accepted the sacrament of Baptism on March 9, 1886 and went on to learn English, French, Dutch, and at least eight local African languages. He became invaluable in translating Scripture and liturgical texts into local dialects.

Bernard went on to become a catechist, a teacher of the faith, and in 1891 he was sent to establish a mission complex and school in a tribal area in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

He adapted the local monotheistic traditional faith and spirituality to teach Christianity, while maintaining the integrity of the Gospel, and was successful in winning over a great number of the local population. Those conversions made him very unpopular with some traditionalists. He became more unpopular with traditionalists when he marked several trees they considered sacred with the sign of the cross.

When a local uprising sprang up in 1896, Bernard was warned his life was in danger. He was told to flee. But, he held fast. The only authority that governed him was Christ, Bernard reasoned, and he refused to abandon his mission or his flock of converts. The uprising found him at home, where he was drug outside and speared in front of his wife.

She left with a helper to collect blankets and water for the dying man. When they were returning, they saw from a distance a blinding light from the spot where they left him lying, and heard a rushing sound, like many wings. When they reached the spot where they’d left him, his body was nowhere to be found.

The place of his death has become a focus of great devotion for Anglicans and other Christians, especially on his feast day, and the Anglican Church he served in Africa now is the fastest growing segment of the Anglican Communion, Christianity’s third-largest denomination.

When we reflect on the incredible courage and sacrifice of martyrs like Bernard, and countless others, from the earliest days of the church to contemporary times, we find ourselves in wonder, asking in the words from Revelation: “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” Scriptures tells us, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” 

Unfortunately, our world has not ceased to create new martyrs, born of hatred and fear stirred up around faith, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and creed. Monday, one day before commemoration of Bernard’s martyrdom, we remembered the fourth anniversary of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the nine people who passed into God’s glory on June 17, 2015: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

They are there, with Bernard, with the other saints and martyrs, worshiping before the throne of God. God tells us in Revelation:

“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This is what St. Paul meant, in Philippians 1:20-21, when he said:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

We strive to serve, in life, like Bernard. We pray for the strength and courage to love, to learn, to share and teach for the glory of God. We pray to have sufficient courage, as Paul says, so that Christ may be exalted in our bodies. And, if the worst that can happen is that our bodies be killed — then we cannot be beaten. Because, just as Bernard was victorious in death, and just as Paul counted his own martyrdom as nothing but gain for Christ, there is nothing death can do to us, if we’ve already died to ourselves and handed over everything we have to Christ.

If we fear for how we could walk in the footsteps of someone like Bernard, or even more so, Paul, Christ tells us in Luke 12:11-12 not to worry:

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

All we must do is have faith, let go of ourselves, and let ourselves be filled with the courage that comes through the Holy Spirit, when we die to ourselves and live in Christ.

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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