Monday, February 28, 2011

Aging Heroes

Look for December 2012 to be an season of great fanfare within the Southern Baptist Convention. I'm already making special plans for our annual Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at FBC Farmersville. December 24, 2012, you see, will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Lottie Moon, the matron saint of Southern Baptist international missions.

Lottie Moon was not the last heroic Southern Baptist missionary, but she is the last (so-far) of our Southern Baptist missionary heroes. In our culture it is a bit harder to have heroes than it was a century ago—the arena of Southern Baptist missions is not the only milieu suffering from this reality. With each passing year, the strength of Lottie's influence fades a bit, except for the historically obsessed like myself. This is the inexorable arc of heroism. People may know the story of Perpetua, Hus, Tyndale, Helwys, or Moon, but the farther back into bygone days these historical heroes are, the less connected many readers feel with them. These heroes may continue to impress, but they become less effective (across the broad swath of the population) to inspire.

It is when someone much like yourself does something inspirational that you are most likely to ask the question, "Shouldn't I be doing something like that, too?"

The most inspirational act within Christianity has always been martyrdom. I confess that my own feelings about martyrdom are strikingly similar to the attitude about chastity held by Augustine ("Give me chastity and continence—but not yet"). I am going to die (unless Christ returns first). I would far rather that I die a meaningful death for my Lord as a martyr than to expire on a hospital bed. But I don't plan to be on the hospital bed anytime soon (not that it is within my power to enact my plans), and it is really the manner of my death, not its timing, that I would like to change. Lord, give me martyrdom—but not yet!

The International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems to me, is structured to avoid inspirational martyrdom. Our most dangerous missions activities are closely-guarded secrets, unable to inspire anyone but a select few. We do have missionaries who die in missionary service, some of whom die not because of medical conditions or crime but because of anti-Christian hostility. Of these, some number die from meeting anti-Christian hostility while in the midst of delivering a bold verbal witness for Christ, I'm sure. These are the kinds of stories that inspire. The passionaries and martyrologies of earlier eras in Christian history are instructive here.

Tertullian said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." But we need to add to Tertullian's insight something gleaned from the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, who opined that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." The blood of martyrdom is not only the seed of the church and her mission, but is some portion of her ongoing sustenance as well. We still need to tell the story of Lottie Moon. We still ought to have the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and it needs to remain under precisely that name. But we have need of new heroes, and hard fields await the gospel where nothing short of ongoing repetitive martyrdom will lead to the widespread dissemination of the gospel. Among the enormous questions facing the future of Southern Baptist missions is the question of who tomorrow's heroes will be and how they will be made.


Dave Miller said...

I had the privilege several years ago to participate in the funeral of a modern Baptist martyr. Bill Hyde, a missionary in the Philippines, went to the Davao City airport to pick up another missionary who was flying in. He was a big man - an Iowa farm boy. An Al-Qaeda bomber probably noticed the large white man and decided to detonate the bomb next to him.

A few years later, the Iowa state missions offering was named after Bill and his wife Lyn (Garlinda).

We took the opportunity to memorialize an Iowan who died as a Southern Baptist missionary in the service of the Lord.

Jerry Rankin told me something as we were conferring about the funeral. He said that almost every one of our missionaries lives under the threat of danger continually.

As you said, we have to obscure that for security reasons, but there are definitely heroes out there, in obsurity, doing God's work faithfully.

Bart Barber said...


I was acknowledging the Bill Hydes of the world (or trying to do so) by noting that Lottie Moon is "…not the last heroic Southern Baptist missionary…" I've posited a difference between an "heroic Southern Baptist missionary" and a "Southern Baptist missionary hero," but I've done so without fully explaining what I understand to be the difference between the two.

1. For someone to be a hero, people need to know a story about that person acting heroically. It is not enough to have acted heroically—the story of one's heroism must have been disseminated. Usually, this involves someone else's deliberate promotion of the hero's story.

By this definition, Bill Hyde is an Iowa Baptist hero, but until the Southern Baptist Convention makes more of his story, he will not be a Southern Baptist missionary hero. Lottie Moon's story is told convention-wide, being deliberately promoted by the SBC, IMB, and WMU.

2. Martyrs become heroes more readily and forcefully if their martyrdom hits the "sweet spot" between suicide and victimhood. Here's what I mean by that.

In Origen's day, some people were seeking out martyrdom. To walk up to a Roman soldier and shout out, "I'm a Christian. Shouldn't you kill me?" is not maximally inspirational.

On the other hand, Bill Hyde was, by your re-telling of the story (which is my only source), a victim of an explosion. He had indeed chosen to go as a missionary to a dangerous land. That was a heroic act on his part. He did die in missionary service. That's far more than I've done. He deserves to be honored. And yet, that's also not maximallly inspirational.

The most inspirational kind of martyrdom that can take place is that in which (a) a person faces a choice between an option that will certainly result in his or her death and an option that will certainly preserve his or her life, but at the cost of abandoning an opportunity to proclaim the gospel or renouncing the faith, (b) that person freely chooses to forsake his or her life in order to proclaim the gospel, and (c) the manner of the person's death exhibits a strong faith all the way to his or her last breath.

3. A person whose nature arouses sympathy in observers is more likely to become a hero. Lottie Moon was a single woman serving abroad. People sympathized with her in a way that they could never have sympathized with T.P. Crawford. A person who has been controversial or overly political is less likely to become a hero.

Does that make sense at all?

So, as I endeavored to say in the post, I think that we have potential heroes, but we don't do a very good job at developing them into heroes.

Bart Barber said...

I was going to reply to an awesome comment, and then it vanished!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this. As an IMB missionary I am challenged by this post. I would agree that our organization is structured to avoid inspirational martyrdom. Every single person with the Board has now gone through contingency training to avoid it. Select leaders and people in the most difficult situations get sent to a special boot camp to really learn how to avoid it. By posting this and remaining anonymous, I am doing my best to avoid it. It makes sense, because obviously none of us are seeking it, but there is also something about this avoidance that is also sad.

I will say, however, that while there are few martyrs or heroes arising from our western missionary agencies, there are more each and every day arising from our brothers and sisters overseas. We don't hear their stories, because nobody is there to record them. And quite frankly, even the ones that have been written are not received in the same way by the western church. In fact I think that most westerners partially even wonder if they are true. Something like, "Oh it can't really be that bad..." Otherwise why aren't organizations like Voice of the Martyrs more popular and stories like Said Musa's saga of the last two weeks written about more? Do our new heroes have to be western or Southern Baptist?

Bart Barber said...

Anonymous M,

First of all, thank you for your service. I know that you do so at risk to yourself, and probably to a family of yours as well. Thanks also for your words about IMB culture regarding martyrdom. I have mixed feelings about it. I know the power of martyrdom, but I'm also so thankful that our mission board wants to protect our missionaries.

I'm just a bundle of self-contradictions, am I not!

Now, as to your question at the end. Sadly, I sort of think that only a Western Southern Baptist will suffice, if what we're hoping to see is Western Southern Baptists inspired. The theory I'm advancing here is that, for some reason, we need to see somebody much like us leading the way heroically in order for us to be prompted to action ourselves. That's why I'm suggesting that even Western Southern Baptist heroes fade with time, as they become more a part of yesterday and we begin to sense dissimilarity between their circumstances and our own.

Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and Martin Burnham are the three people I would identify as the best candidates for missionary heroes in this moment. None of them are Southern Baptists, but all are Westerners. I think it is hard for non-Westerners to get the floor over here. I also think that non-SBC/IMB heroes are difficult for the IMB to use to inspire Southern Baptists. Maybe the Lord would rather inspire Southern Baptists to support something other than the IMB, but the general theme of this post is to ask who's going to fill Lottie Moon's shoes, and her legacy has been to inspire people to participant in and support Southern Baptist missionary activities through the FMB/IMB.

Southern Baptist twitter feeds lit up pretty well over Said Musa, but social media have a short attention span. As you have noted, more traditional media have to decide to take up the cause of someone's heroism over a longer term in order to bring lasting inspiration to people. That didn't happen with Said Musa.

Lottie Moon was a (Southern Baptist) media darling. She became the icon that she was at least partly because of a media campaign. I guess it really isn't just twitter that has a short attention span—people have shorter attention spans these days. They're more cynical, too. The shrinking globe makes far-away destinations less remote and exotic. It grows more and more difficult to make anyone larger-than-life.

These are some of the challenges that face us, I believe.

Again, thanks for what you are doing. I mean that.

Dave Miller said...

Bart: "I was going to reply to an awesome comment, and then it vanished!"

I'm confused, Bart. My comment did not disappear.

You should blog more.