A little over a year ago, Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt was assassinated in Syria. His story is inspirational for the sheer faithfulness and integrity of his witness. I keep his picture in my office to remind me of this witness.
Although we don’t know for sure who killed him — Syria being the muddled chaos it is — we do know that in a very real sense he died a martyr for Syria and for his faith, and certainly for the stand he took for all that is good and enduring on this earth.
Like most Jesuits, Father van der Lugt was an intellectual, a Dutchman described by a fellow Jesuit as a progressive visionary. He served in Homs, Syria, and was involved in the life of that community, initiating youth programs, engaging in interreligious dialogue.
He founded a project that included a center for the disabled, a retreat and a winery. He was loved and admired by his Christian and Muslim neighbors.
The fact that masked gunmen would drag him from his home and shoot him is a testimony to the evil of our world.
The siege of Homs was ghastly. This old Syrian city was caught between rebel fighters and the brutal forces of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, bit by bloody bit, in an effort to retain power.
“Nothing is more painful than watching mothers searching for food for their children in the streets,” Father van der Lugt wrote in his blog shortly before his death, neglecting to mention that, like them, he was reduced to eating whatever he found.
When I was growing up, I thought of martyrs as early Christians, people fed to lions who offered Masses in secret. But history shows us that martyrdom is as contemporary as today’s headlines.
Martyrdom intrigues us, probably because most of the martyrs we admire could easily have avoided their death, usually with no loss to their prestige. Sometimes martyrdom is as simple as sticking around the place you’re called to be.
Father van der Lugt’s superiors would have helped him leave Syria long before he joined his neighbors in the abject hunger that they experienced as the siege continued.
But people like Father van der Lugt, or Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in El Salvador, or Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stayed in Germany under Adolf Hitler, remind us that often, people are martyred simply for standing their ground.
What does a martyr do? A martyr doesn’t choose death, and certainly doesn’t want to die. Usually martyrs are people who truly savor life. But a martyr remains faithful. No word describes a martyr better than “integrity.” A martyr places his life on the line as a witness to truth.
The martyr’s model is Jesus. As we read the Gospels, sometimes we yearn to say to Christ, “Stop! Don’t go to Jerusalem now.” Surely his disciples tried to dissuade him: Let things calm down, blow over. But he remained true to the path on which his life’s work had set him.
Jesus’ example of faithfulness to the end is a Christian’s inspiration, and that’s what gave Father Frans van der Lugt the courage to pick up his cross and do the same.
What do these martyrs teach us? They don’t suggest that we make of life a sacrificial downer. They urge us to live our lives to the full but always to remain faithful to the calling God gives us, knowing God will be there with us at the end.