Last week, gunmen from the Islamic sect Boko Haram attacked the Church of the Brethren in the village of Atagara in northern Nigeria, killing two and torching the church on their way out. Over several days, the terrorist group killed dozens in the same region and forced hundreds to flee. In the northeastern city of Potiskum, thirty-one people were murdered over a three-day period recently, and a church was burned. On October 21, most churches in Potiskum cancelled Sunday services. Boko Haram terrorists have killed more than a thousand this year, nearly three thousand since their surge began in 2009. They’ve left dozens of churches in ruins.
Few readers of First Things are cowering from Boko Haram, but we aren’t on the sidelines. In John’s Apocalypse, martyrdom has a dramatic political impact, and the church as a whole has a critical role in its success. When the Lamb opens the fifth seal early in Revelation, the souls of the martyrs cry out, “How long O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?” They are told to wait for the rest of the martyrs to be killed. Near the end of Revelation, those prayers are answered as the blood of martyrs makes the harlot city so drunk that she topples over. When prayers are joined with martyr blood, the Lord knocks over predatory regimes.
There is a subtle hint in Revelation that bold witness joined with prayer is the key political practices that mark the people of God at all times and places. The word “bowl” appears twelve times in the Apocalypse. Once it refers to the bowls of incense by which the heavenly elders offer prayers before the Lamb and the Enthroned Once, and the other eleven times it refers to the bowls of blood poured out on Babylon. From the time that Yahweh played the potter to make Adam from the adamah, human beings are figured in Scripture by pots and bowls. The twelve bowls signify the twelvefold new Israel whose chief weapons are incense and blood. When the people of God pour themselves out as censors and blood-bowls, the Lord overthrows tyrants. Be the bowls: That is how the world is transformed.
Though we ourselves may not be threatened by persecution, the church is one and she is always on the cross. The church is always, somewhere, the martyr church, and prayer is our participation in the politics of martyrdom. In prayer, non-martyrs become the voice of the martyrs.
But we have to learn to pray, and here comfortable Western Christians have a huge dilemma. In many churches, prayers for vindication and judgment are considered barbaric and sub-Christian. Things would look different, I expect, if Boko Haram were breathing down our necks. We would be eager to call on a defender. And things look different in the Psalms, the prayer book of the church. Pleas for judgment are not confined to a handful of fanatical “imprecatory” Psalms. On the contrary, few appeals are more pervasive and prominent in the Psalter than the cry for just vengeance.
It is implicit in Psalm 2: “Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way.” It is in Psalm 3: “Arise, Yahweh; save me, O my God! For You have smitten my enemies on the cheek; you have shattered the teeth of the wicked.” And in Psalm 5: “Hold them guilty, O God, by their own devices let them fall.” And Psalm 6: “All my enemies will be ashamed and greatly dismayed; they shall turn back, they shall suddenly be ashamed.” It is even more explicit in Psalm 7: “Vindicate me, O Yahweh, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me . . . [My enemy’s] mischief will return upon his own head; and his violence will descend upon his own pate.” And Psalm 9: “You rebuke the nations; You have destroyed the wicked . . . The enemy has come to an end in perpetual ruins.” In Psalm 10, David prays for a new exodus: “Arise, O Yahweh; O God, lift up Your hand. Do not forget the afflicted. . . . Break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer, seek out his wickedness until You find none.”
There are 140 Psalms left, and we already know that this is a hymnal full of war Psalms, cries of the afflicted, petitions for vindication and deliverance. These are the prayers shrewdly designed for a martyr church. The Psalter articulates the voice of the martyrs.
Since the early centuries, commemorating martyrs has been one of the disciplines that makes the church an endless factor of martyrs. Publicizing martyrs is all well and good. But martyrdom’s political effect ultimately depends on an audience of One, the Lord whose ears are open to the double witness of the twelve bowls, the witness of Abel’s blood calling from the ground and the laments of the church: How long, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging their blood shed on the earth?
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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