One particular Sunday ago, I bought a calendar almanac from my Catholic church. I never planned to, I sort of did it on impulse. It was an almanac of the martyrs of the early church. It vividly displayed the many ways the early disciples of the Lord died: Stephen was stoned; Peter was crucified on a cross upside down; Paul and James the Great were beheaded; Matthew and Thomas were killed with spears; James the Less was stoned and clubbed to death; Simon, Jude and Andrew were crucified (Andrew being crucified on an X-shaped wooden cross); Bartholomew was beaten and skinned alive; Matthias was stoned and then beheaded; Mark was tied to a horse and dragged to death on the ground; Luke was hanged on an olive tree; John was banished to the isle of Patmos in Ephesus where he died a natural death after being cast into a cauldron of boiling oil of which he came out miraculously unscathed.
Looking at that calendar almanac has always held a fascination for me. The deaths of those saints were definitely glorious ones being displayed on the almanac. But death is a painful thing to undergo, especially for a divine cause.
We all know that there are two main ways of dying: physically and spiritually. Most human beings, for one reason or the other, prefer to die physically than spiritually. An internal death is like a destruction of the soul. Something like a mental wound makes one feel like dying. The Bible said that you are dead if you are not in Christ. A very devastating incident known to the individual alone can cause him emotional emptiness.
Physical deaths range from strangulation, hanging and poisoning to all sorts of accidents and murder. In Guatemala, there was news of women, specifically young girls, being kidnapped and killed after undergoing sexual violence. Military rule is still known to exist in Burma. Writers, actors, two students who wrote poetry and the most popular stand-up comedian in the country rest unjustly in prison because of the brutal and suffocating rule of Burmese military.
Professor Wole Soyinka said that the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. One dies if one cannot stand up against suppressed, oppressive and repressive rule of any type, kind or nature. One dies if one cannot fight for one’s fundamental human rights. If a legitimate life is not lived, one dies. Someone was nice enough to tell me that Nigerians are persons, not human beings. Nigerians are merely existing, not living. Hunger and poverty are prevalent in the minds of Nigerians, materially rich or poor. The psycho system of the black man generally is cluttered with evil, and this makes death a profitable venture. Professor Soyinka rubs it in well at the tail end of his preface to his prison notes when he said: In any people that submit willingly to the ‘daily humiliation of fear’, the man dies.
The Bible told us that death was neither God’s doing nor God’s invention. It was our sin that created death. We die when we disunite and helplessly allow depression set in, and our deaths can come to us either physically or spiritually or both, depending on our different destinies. (Some of us do not believe in fate for then we would realise that we are not in control of our own lives). We die when we pretend to be happy, for pretence of any sort never lasts. Living a lie right from biological birth makes one a living dead.
Concepts of death spring up from everywhere. This is my concept. Death in a way can be a wonderful thing if it makes a positive impact on particular communities. But death is a terrible thing when unexpected and uninvited. Professor Chinua Achebe in his book Arrow of God uttered these two proverbs: “When Suffering (Death) knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool”; “The death that will kill a man begins as an appetite.”
For the martyrs of the early church, the only sin they had was their flesh, for their death is an after-life. Jesus Christ made sure of that. Dying for them is a glorious act, a final fulfilment, an accomplishment. But our case is different. Sometimes (if not very often) we say to ourselves: “I am not afraid of death, but I don’t want to die.” How ironic!