Islamic guerillas in the Philippines appear to have profiled Martin Burnham and his wife, Gracia. The missionaries were kidnapped more than a year ago because they were Christians and Americans. They were held hostage because their captors hoped to win political concessions from the Philippine government that would ultimately lead to their goal of establishing a Muslim state.
Burnham, 42, died Friday (June 7) in a shootout between government troops and the Muslim separatists, Gracia, 43, was wounded but is reported out of danger following surgery in a military hospital. Four of the kidnappers, who are part of the Abu Sayyaf group, were killed. Since they began their movement, the rebels have kidnapped 18 other people, including 17 Filipinos and a resident of Corona, Calif., Guillermo Sobero, whom the guerillas beheaded in June, 2001 according to U.S. and Filipino officials. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told President Bush in a phone call that her government would hold the rebels accountable for Burnham's death.
The Burnhams, like thousands of other missionaries around the world and millions since the time of Christ, gave up the comforts of home and careers that could earn them money and prestige and committed their lives to helping the less fortunate and sharing what Christians call the "good news" of salvation through Jesus Christ and the promise of a home in Heaven.
In a significant way, the Burnhams and the many others who similarly labor, are counter-cultural. They exchange the illusion of immediate gratification for something they regard as of greater value. Their rewards are not denied, although some are delayed and paid in a different "currency"; missionaries see the people to whom they minister transformed and given a hope that transcends their circumstances.
Missionaries may not have fancy homes, expensive clothes, flashy cars and the prestige sought and obtained by others, but neither do they have the burden of maintaining an expensive lifestyle. In fact, some who observe missionaries like the Burnhams come to realize that even though they gain the world's riches, they have nothing if they fail to tend to the care and feeding of their souls. That's the point John Grisham makes in his novel "The Testament," in which a hard-charging Washington lawyer confronts a missionary in the Amazon jungle and is transformed by the power of her example and witness to him. She needs none of what he has. He needs, but cannot buy, what she possesses.
Missionary work has always been dangerous. Whether they confront disease, discouragement or loneliness, the work is forever challenging. Now, in an age in which terrorists might see unarmed, defenseless missionaries as inviting targets, the danger is greater. Church history teaches that persecution, including the death of missionaries, always produces new converts. Some American Christians think they are being persecuted when a newspaper editorial criticizes what they're doing in the political arena. Perhaps they should change places with missionaries like the Burnhams and experience what real persecution looks and feels like.
The Burnhams worked in the Philippines under the auspices of New Tribes Mission. A June 7 news bulletin on the NTM Online Web site (http://www.ntm.org/connect/hlast.shtml) announced Martin's death this way: "Martin with the Lord." For such people, death is the ultimate freedom.
NTM Web pages also include the words of the One the Burnhams followed, even to the Philippine jungles and, for Martin, to death, including: "'He that loves his life shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be; if any man serve me, him will my Father honor.' -- Jesus Christ."
In addition to his wife, Martin Burnham is survived by three children, Jeff, 15, Mindy, 12 and Zach, 11. They could not have had better role models of selflessness, sacrifice and service, although they also have Martin's parents, who served God in the Philippines for more than 32 years.