Magnificat and martyrdom

Commemoration of Jonathan Myrick Daniels
Seminarian and Witness for Civil Rights

On the fourteenth of August the Episcopal Church commemorates Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Northern white seminarian who in 1965 took time away from seminary to join the struggle for civil rights in Alabama and in the end gave his life to save an African American girl who was being threatened by a gunman. Though the Episcopal Church is very careful about its use of the designation ‘martyr’,* there is no doubt that it was his deep faith, nourished by word and sacrament, doctrine and devotion, that motivated Daniels to work for justice and to give his life for the sake of another, and no doubt that this has been and continues to be a great witness for Christ, His love, and His Church in the United States of America – and ‘witness’ is what ‘martyr’ means.

Daniels wrote that he was moved to go to Selma precisely by the song of Our Lady which he recited day after day at Evensong in the chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School:

‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. ‘He hath showed strength with his arm.’ As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled ‘moment’ that would, in retrospect, remind me of others – particularly one at Easter three years ago [when Daniels had a particular experience of grace while attending the Church of the Advent, Boston]. Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.

And not only this, lest we might think Daniels had had ‘only’ a devotional, emotional, psychological, or aesthetic experience (may not the Lord reach us through our affections, minds, and senses?): there was a more ‘solid’ foundation to his calling:

The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself.

Daniels candidly described his struggles with his own motives, the recognition of his own sinfulness and self-righteousness even in the midst of the campaign for justice –

I lost fear... when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one’s motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.

– but also how the experience changed him:

The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown...

As Judy and I said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible ‘communion of saints’ – of the beloved comunity in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around a near-distant throne in heaven – who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and ‘ends’ all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.

Tertullian famously wrote, defending the Church against her enemies and describing the martyrdoms that were such a part of her life in the second and third centuries, ‘the blood of Christians is seed [semen est sanguis Christianorum]’ [Apologeticus L.xiii]. But those of heroic faith like Daniels are themselves fed by the Sacrament, by the creeds, by the Divine Office, by the Theotókos and the communion of saints: it was this constant prayer, constant meditation upon Scripture and the mysteries of the faith, constant acknowledgement of the constant presence of the saints, that led Daniels to give the ultimate witness of love. Without this nourishment, there can be no seed for the next generation.

And so let the faithful not only remember Daniels and pray to live by his example of selflessness, conviction, and courage, and boldly to face the plague of racial and other violence that still ails our country fifty years later –

O God of justice and compassion, who dost put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and dost lift up the poor and afflicted: We give thee thanks for thy faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever

– but also ask for his constancy in prayer and his openness to the song of Our Lady, to the insight of the Apostle, to the prayers of the saints, so that we in our own ways may be the witnesses Our Lord charged us to be. From the seed of his blood, and that of all the martyrs, may the Church grow and blossom for the glory of God and the healing of the nations.

*  Historically, the greatest exemplars of such [heroic] faith have been martyrs, who have suffered death for the cause of Christ, and confessors, who have endured imprisonment, torture, or exile for the sake of Christ. Following this precedent, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America has been very specific and has restricted the designation of martyrdom to persons who have chosen to die rather than give up the Christian faith, and has not applied it to persons whose death may have resulted from their heroic faith but who did not consciously choose martyrdom. There are other situations where choosing and persisting in a Christian manner of life involves confessing Christ ‘against the odds’, even to the point of risking one’s life... More recently the Church has learned to honor social reformers like William Wilberforce and Jonathan Daniels for the same reasons. Heroic faith is, therefore, a quality manifested in many different situations.
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