Today, August 14th, is the feast day of Maximillian Kolbe and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. You probably have never heard of either of these saints, but I could not imagine two better saints to speak into our current national strife. Their stories come from the not too distant past and speak profoundly into our present and future.
In July 1941, a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz, and as a reprisal the Gestapo selected ten men arbitrarily to die in a starvation bunker. When one of the men was selected, named Francis Gajowniczek, he cried out and said, “Oh! My poor wife and my children. They’ll never see me again!” And at that moment a small Polish man in glasses, named Maximillian Kolbe, stepped out of line, he took off his cap, and he said: “I’m a Catholic priest, so I don’t have a wife or children. I would like to die instead of that man.”
To everyone’s amazement, his offer was accepted, and he was taken to the starvation bunker. He kept up an amazing atmosphere in that bunker. He got everyone singing hymns and praying. But on August 14th they needed the bunker for other people, and they gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He was the last one to die.
Forty-one years later, his death was put in its proper perspective. There in St. Peter’s Square, Rome, a crowd of 150,000 people gathered, including 26 cardinals, 300 archbishops and bishops, and Francis Gajowniczek. And on that occasion, the Pope said, “The death of Maximilian Kolbe was a victory like the one won by our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because he gave himself – he gave up his life for the sake of another. Francis Gajowniczek died at the age of ninety-three: he’d spent the rest of his life going around telling everybody about the love of this man who died in his place.*
Kolbe was murdered by a Nazi, but the gospel marched on.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a young seminarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts when he saw the televised appeal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in March of 1965 for people of good will to come to Selma, Alabama. That evening as he read the Magnificat during Evening Prayer he felt God’s call to go to Selma. Daniels joined in the civil rights movement and was arrested on August 14, 1965. Then, he and his three companions were suddenly and unexpectedly released from jail. Aware that they were in danger on the streets, they walked to a nearby store. Lesser Feasts and Fasts records what happened next: “As sixteen year-old Ruby Sales reached the top step of the entrance, a man with a gun appeared, cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side to shield her from the unexpected threats. As a result, he was killed by a blast from the 12-gauge gun.”
Daniels left behind letters and journals which reveal the depth of his faith and his commitment to seeing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. He wrote about his experience in Selma: “The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown…I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection…with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”
Daniels was murdered by a racist, but the gospel marched on.
This past week, a gathering of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville erupted in violence, resulting in the murder of Heather Heyer and at least 34 people being seriously injured. Heather Heyer was murdered by a Nazi and a racist, but the gospel will march on.
Racism in any form is in complete opposition to the gospel of reconciliation which declares, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) When Jesus died on the cross, he “broke down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14–16) Genesis 1 teaches that human beings are created “in the image of God.” No human can possibly be of more value than any other human. These Christian beliefs are what drove evangelical Christians to fight for the emancipation of slaves.
The racism that Jesus and the early Church battled against is still very present all around the world today. At moments such as this, when racial violence is being inspired specifically by white supremacy, it is imperative that white Christians emphasize that white supremacy is opposed to the gospel. Only the gospel has a future. Nazism, racism, and white supremacy have no future. Their promise of salvation at the expense of others is a lie fueled by the fires of hell. The only future is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) This is the kingdom we are praying for God to bring on the earth when we pray the Lord’s Prayer each week. The Church has no place for Nazism, racism, or white supremacy. The Lord Jesus Christ is not the king of any one nation, ethnicity, race, or culture. He is king over them all.
It is easy to see the vile sin of the Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville; it is much more difficult to see the sin of racism and hate in our own hearts and lives. It is far too easy for us to distance ourselves from the hate we see flash across our screens. The call of the gospel compels us to search our own hearts and see if we find in them any root of racism. The gospel will march on. It will not be hindered or deterred. The question is this: will we march on with the gospel?
Marching on with the gospel means repenting of our sins and denouncing the sin of racism that pervades our culture. I challenge you this week to spend some time reflecting on your own heart and perspective on people of other races and ethnicities. And then I challenge you to intentionally make time and space to spend time with people of other races and ethnicities. Listen to them. Love them. Pray for them. Ask them to pray for you. Racism ends where love begins.
*I am indebted to Nicky Gumble for this story. I first came across it in the Alpha Course.