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Remembering the Martyrs of Vietnam

Today the Roman Catholic Church and Christians everywhere commemorate the Vietnamese Christians tortured and murdered for their faith between the 17th and the 20th centuries. The Vatican estimates that between 130,000 and 300,000 people were killed in these waves of persecution.

As the Wikipedia entry on these events puts it:

The tortures these individuals underwent are considered by the Vatican to be among the worst in the history of Christian martyrdom. The torturers hacked off limbs joint by joint, tore flesh with red hot tongs, and used drugs to enslave the minds of the victims. Christians at the time were branded on the face with the words “ta dao” (, lit. “Left (Sinister) religion”)[1] and families and villages which subscribed to Christianity were obliterated.[2]

The latest of these persecutions was very much on the minds of the Vietnamese Catholics I visited in the Red River delta five years ago. In a landscape now covered with beautiful gray stone Catholic churches set among emerald rice paddies, priests and bishops took me to see the tombs of locals killed during the various persecutions. Victims of communism were not on display, but their resting places are known and when conditions are right, they too will be honored among the saints. For now, they are quietly remembered by the friends and family members who’ve been inspired by their examples.

For Christians of all persuasions, the still unfolding history of Christianity in Vietnam is one to be remembered and examined. At times used by French colonizers as a front for western influence, Vietnam’s Christians nevertheless managed to set down deep roots in the culture and remain today a growing presence. It is possible both to admire the courage and devotion of the martyrs and to understand the resistance of Vietnamese leaders to the colonialism and westernization with which mission activity was once associated. The patience and piety of so many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Christians then and now is all the more admirable when one reflects on the divided loyalties they felt as they sought to integrate the gospel message with the traditions and culture around them. And in today’s fevered atmosphere of religious conflict, it is worth remembering that these martyrs were willing to die for their faith — but didn’t seek to impose it on others.

Americans tend to pay less attention to stories of martyrdom than people from cultures with unhappier histories. Our revolutionary and religious heroes often tended to win their battles; nobody set themselves on fire to dramatize the cause of American independence. But without remembering those heroes of conviction who willingly chose death over betraying their ideals, our lives are poorer — and our grasp on our own values becomes uncertain and weak.

How many of us today would have the courage to die for our beliefs? How many of us are sure we have beliefs that are worth dying for?

The martyrs of Vietnam have a message for the rest of us: A life that isn’t connected to values more important than simple biological existence isn’t being fully lived. If you’re not in touch with something or Someone greater than you, you’re not really in touch with yourself.

A point to ponder on a dark November evening: Not everyone is called to give up their life for their beliefs, but everyone is called to have beliefs worth dying for.

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