The Martyrs of Papua New Guinea and the Grain of Humility
‘Unless a grain of wheat dies … it remains but a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24) I have mixed feelings about this text of scripture. It is our text because 2nd September is the day the Anglican Church of Australia celebrates the Martyrs of New Guinea (d.1942). The twelve Anglicans died in Papua New Guinea in 1942-3, during the Japanese invasion and occupation of the country. They were: John Barge,priest; Margery Brenchley, nurse; John Duffill, builder Leslie Gariardi,evangelist and teacher; May Hayman, nurse; Henry Holland, priest; Lilla Lashmar, teacher; Henry Matthews, priest; Bernard More, priest; Mavis Parkinson, teacher; Vivian Redlich, priest; Lucian Tapiedi, evangelist and teacher. Altogether three hundred thirty-three church workers of various denominations were killed during the Japanese occupation of New Guinea. Later, around St. George’s Day 2003, six Brothers of the Anglican Melanesian Order were killed on the island of Guadalcanal by the rebel leader, Harold Keke. Why mixed feelings? I recognise the truth and power behind Jesus’ words.It is not that I have to literally die, like the Martyrs of New Guinea. But dying to self or ego is uncomfortable, not easy. Yet I know that Life will come forth to the extent I am able to journey further along the way toward unqualified and self-forgetting love. This is why the martyrs were in New Guinea, and it’s why they stayed in the face of Japanese invasion. ‘Unless a grain of wheat dies …’ is at the heart of Christian formation; actually, at the centre of human formation, if we want to be women and men of grace and care, and of community. In this scripture Jesus speaks prophetically about himself and his followers likening himself to the grain of wheat that needs to be sown in the earth in order to survive and flourish. It is a metaphor from the heart of created life. Here Jesus points to the mystery of God-given evolution: within creation there are signs of the reality of God’s ways in the world, life within and through dying. The metaphor points to the life-force (Spirit) of God that is central to the reality of all life and no less ours even through death. Most of us will not have to face martyrdom, but there remains the ideal of self-giving service with humility. Bishop Philip Strong’s words to the people of his church reminds us of the way these martyrs are an ongoing sign for us of the Christ-life as the grain of wheat that brings forth much fruit: ‘“We must endeavour to carry on our work. … We could never hold up our faces again if, for our own safety, we all forsook Him and fled, when the shadows of the Passion began to gather around Him in His spiritual and mystical body, the Church in Papua.” They stayed. Almost immediately there were arrests. Eight clergymen and two laymen were executed “as an example” on September 2, 1942. In the next few years, many Papuan Christians of all Churches risked their own lives to care for the wounded.’ Our text and the memory of these martyrs points us toward a deep spiritual truth, one that invites hope as well as humility. As a formative text John 12:24 sits in deep contrast to populist feel-good optimistic Christianity, coloured as it is with smooth messaging drawn from slick marketing, implying linkage between prosperity and Christian virtue. The martyrs of New Guinea remind us that following Jesus is about hope. Jesus leads us to engage with our world and to grapple with realities around us, to get on with life as we experience it, relate with people as we meet them in all kinds of situations, and to do so hopefully with grace and care and humility. And sometimes, some of us find we have to live out this Christ-life in extraordinary ways, ways most of hope we will never experience. Fr James Benson was one of the survivors, cut off from the nurses who did not survive. He wrote that their experiences brought them ‘a growing sense of the oneness of the human family.’ Later in the 1960’s members of the Japanese church (Nippon Sei Ko Kai) came to visit the graves of these and other martyrs, and in humility and as a gesture of reconciliation, they gave funds to support Newton Theological College in Oro Province. Humility is the virtue that comes to mind as I ponder my ongoing formation and remember these martyrs and reread John 12:24. ‘Humility,’ wrote former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, ‘is the indispensable soil of caritas.’ PRAYER Almighty God, we remember before you this day the blessed Martyrs of New Guinea, who, following the example of their Saviour, laid down their lives for their friends; and we pray that we, who honour their memory, may imitate their loyalty and faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.