Friday, May 14, 2010

The Martyrdom of Minh Voan

The image of Christians being thrown to the lions during the time of the persecutions in the Roman Empire has been presented so often that it is easy to take the reality of such deaths for granted. The Coliseum in Rome was built to entertain the populace of the city with exciting spectacles. While some of the attractions were innocent, others excited the audience through bloodshed and death. Many wild animals and gladiators were compelled to fight to the death to stir voyeuristic passions in the hearts of those in the stands.

One of the most strange and unaccountable sights the Coliseum could offer was to see a Christian die, with upward gaze, singing hymns of joy. The martyrdom of a Christian, who had made a good confession before the multitude and then met the wild beasts with a calm resolution and a hopeful joy, was beyond the understanding of the lookers-on. The sight was one of the choicest of entertainments, and was often reserved for the last item on the schedule of events.

Martyrs have testified to their faith in every century since the resurrection of Jesus. This is why they are called martyrs, a word that means “witness”. People are not usually willing to die for a philosophy or a doctrine. Galileo recanted his proclamation that the earth rotates around the sun when threatened with execution, though it is said that he muttered “but it does” when he left the place of his recantation. Defending his astronomical discovery, true as it was, was not worth more to him than his life. In contrast, the Christian martyrs died not for a teaching but for a divine Person, who in his infinite and invulnerable Personhood has even conquered death. He conquered death because he loves those upon whom he wishes to confer life, perfection, and the deepest possible intimacy, without end.

The witness of the martyrs was so central to the life of the early Church that by the middle of the second century, the frequently persecuted Christian community observed annual commemorations of the martyrdoms that were part of their heritage. The first such commemoration was that of the aged bishop Polycarp, who was put to death for Jesus’ sake in about A.D. 156. His community commemorated his witness on the first anniversary of his death. It is highly significant that the anniversary they celebrated was the date of the death, rather than the birth, of the martyr. Christians view birthdays as days of gratitude for one’s life in the world, but the date of death as the “birthday” into the kingdom of God, and therefore as worthy of the greater celebration.

The closest I’ve ever come to knowing someone who became a martyr was knowing someone who had known him. The martyr’s name was Minh Voan. Among the last known photographs taken of him, there is one that shows him with Dr. Stan Mooneyham, the late President of World Vision, a Christian outreach ministry based in Monrovia, California. They are arguing on the tarmac at the airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in April 1975. The fall of the city to the Khmer Rouge is imminent.

In the photograph, Dr. Mooneyham’s back is to the camera, located on an airplane filled with Cambodian orphans; the plane also holds Voan’s wife and children. Dr. Mooneyham is pleading with Voan to board the plane with his family. Voan is looking up earnestly at him wearing his combat hard helmet. In the background, others are looking toward plumes of smoke rising from the airfield as the Khmer Rouge shell the runway trying to prevent the airplane from taking off.

As Dr. Mooneyham urges him to board, Voan tells him, “I cannot leave Cambodia, because my work is not yet finished. My father and my mother, my brothers and sisters, do not yet know Christ. I cannot leave.” His face shows no fear of any kind.

Minh Voan was a Cambodian who worked on a relief and development project with World Vision in his native land. He was a very devout Christian who came from a family whose members were still Buddhist. Voan spent countless hours not only working on World Vision projects but also in preaching the Gospel to his countrymen. When it became obvious that Cambodia would fall into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, World Vision evacuated as many of its native personnel as possible. It was almost certain that any Cambodians who had associated with the Americans for any reason would be killed.

During the evacuation, Voan was instrumental in seeing that many Cambodian orphans found refuge in the United States. Dr. Mooneyham’s son Eric, who took the photograph, wrote to me about the day when Voan was left behind.

"We flew a Convair 140 full of powdered milk out of Bangkok via Saigon and landed at Pochetong airport where Voan met us. When we landed the U.S. attache was boarding the last military flight out and advised us to leave immediately. Under shell fire from howitzers only a few miles away we off-loaded the supplies and took on 23 infant passengers (left behind at an orphanage), Voan’s wife Theri and their children (I remember two). I still have a piece of shrapnel that bounced off my flak vest. It was too hot to handle and I tossed it in my camera bag. I'd forgotten about it till I got home and found it melted into the foam rubber.

"I took the photo during an argument between my father and Minh Voan. Voan wanted to stay behind. He insisted that there was unfinished work. He said he would find his way to Thailand and escape across the border when the time was right. My father argued and pleaded with Voan to come with us but Voan stayed anyway ...

"We did not hear anything from Voan ... until we returned in 1985. At the invitation of the new government World Vision reopened the children’s hospital which we had built before Pol Pot and which had been looted and abandoned during those years. We were walking through the streets when an older man came running out of a doorway and pointed at my father and said, 'I know you!’ Because it was dangerous for him to be seen talking to westerners we went inside with him. After a few minutes of dialog we found that this man knew Minh Voan and had witnessed his death. He said Voan was caught witnessing and that he and another man were clubbed on the back of the head."

Those who knew Minh Voan are certain that he would not have thought that he was doing anything out of the ordinary by staying behind—only doing what his faith demanded. He never called attention to himself, but exhibited a self-effacing humility and a simple obedience to Christ. Voan’s determination to remain in Cambodia to serve Christ and to preach the Gospel even though threatened with death, demonstrates that this was a man whose love for Jesus Christ was stronger than the fear of death. Like all the martyrs of Jesus, his head never bowed and his heart never quailed before his enemies.

In nearly two thousand years of Christian history there have been countless martyrs whose testimonies have not been remembered by the world or even the Church. Those whose heroism for Jesus is known comprise only a small fraction of the whole company. Many sources report that there were more of them in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined. I hope this account of Minh Voan will make his name a little better known. No one knows the exact date of his death, but I remember him every year in mid-May so that his name will always be brought to mind in the Easter season.

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