The first few days of June are shot through with red, the colour of blood. Already this week we have celebrated the martyrdom of SS Marcellinus and Peter and SS Charles Lwanga and Companions, the martyrs of Uganda. Tomorrow we celebrate the martyrdom of St Boniface, the apostle of Germany; and today we mark another kind of bearing witness, that of the Tiananmen Square protestors of twenty-five years ago.
If I were at home, I would have searched out what is for me the most evocative image of Tiananmen: a solitary figure, clad in black trousers and white shirt, advancing unarmed towards a line of tanks. The courage and futility of that act remind me of many similar acts in the past. Times, situations, can make the most ordinary person extraordinary. We may think of ourselves as constitutionally cowardly, unlikely ever to stand up to evil, however much we might want to. But grace can surprise us all. It was another martyr* who remarked to his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made,’ and his martyrdom, too, had a political consequence as well as a religious one.
I’m not claiming that the people who died in Tiananmen and after were martyrs as the Church understands martyrs, rather that they bore witness to human idealism and hope. China has changed much in the past twenty-five years, but the freedoms for which the protestors hoped are still as elusive as ever. Corruption continues to bedevil local government. The persecution of minorities has not abated. Today as we pray for China, let’s ask the prayers of the Martyrs, who understand, as we who have not been tried perhaps cannot, both the cost of bearing witness and its importance.
*St Thomas More