Sermon for the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood

Stained glass window at St Mark’s Chapel, Tabalia, showing Br Ini with a Melanesian and a Companion of the Melanesian Brotherhood

24th April 2021 Tabalia Central Headquarters

May I preach in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Happy are those who work for Peace, they will be called the Sons and daughters of God”, Matthew. 5: 9.

On accepting the Pacific Human Rights Award, Former Head Brother Jude Alfred said these words, “Today as I accept this award, I accept it on behalf of all those who have worked and longed for peace, but especially on behalf of our seven (7) Brothers who are no longer with us but died wanting peace and happiness to return to Solomon Islands.” Indeed, this is a profound way of paying respect and tribute to the 7 martyrs.

Besides there are far greater spiritual ways of tributes to them; they have been canonised as martyrs, appointed 24th April their feast day, and each annual commemoration, not just here but through ACOM and abroad. All these and others are honours and tributes the seven martyred Brothers receive.

So our gathering today is the Church’s ongoing tribute to their discipleship, witness and martyrdom. Each year as we gather around them in worship, we are reminded of their discipleship and witness for our own, members of Religious Communities and Christians. Each year we are joined by many Christians throughout the Anglican Church of Melanesia and abroad to honour and respect the seven martyrs: Brothers Robin Lindsay, Francis Tofi, Alfred Hill, Tony Sirihi, Ini Paratabatu, Patteson Gatu and Nathaniel Sado.

These were brave and faithful young men who were friends, colleagues and relatives of some of us here today. Some of us ate, played, worked, prayed and shared mission and the simple life of the Brotherhood together with them. It is a special relationship and each year as we commemorate their lives that relationship of belonging grows.

They gave up their whole for the sake of peace and harmony in Solomon Islands during her dark chaotic day. They shared the brutal and fatality of many loved and dear ones during the tension. They shared in the passion in Christ. They were inhumanly killed and disposed of as though they were animals.

But thanks to RAMSI and SI Field Force for recovering and returning their bodies to their beloved home, Tabalia for the reverend and dignified Christian burial they fully deserved.

Today’s celebration we acknowledge the intervention power of God in ways we cannot fully comprehend in Solomon Islands, once full of darkness, fear, violence, hatred and killing for pleasure.

The martyrdom brought ACOM and MBH a lot of confusion, suspension, questions about the holiness and purity of the Brotherhood. Their home coming and funeral contained the pain of the brutal killing, but also the shame MBH and Companions’ encountered from Christians trying to deface the Brotherhood. There were in indeed more questions than answers as day by day the Brotherhood was continually accused of being spies, of being government agent, being partiality, and being providers food supplies to militia groups.

But on that solemn day, the Brothers and Novices together with members of other religious Communities in their best, stood at the bottom of hill leading up to the Mother House, Tabalia. The MBH Chaplain then, the Rev. Richard Carter wrote,

“They were supported by a large crowd, ragging from the Governor General to village children, waiting for the final homecoming of their beloved Brothers. One by one the coffins were unloaded from the trucks which simultaneously increase the wailing of the crowd as they pushed towards the coffins. The Brothers, with dignity and inner strength, carried the coffins in long procession up the hill and into the chapel of St. Mark. In front of each coffin, there was banner with the words, ‘Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called the children of God’ and the name of the Brother who had given his life for the cause of that PEACE”.

Such expresses the pain and suffering of the death of the seven Brothers; how inhumanly the cruel killing took place, but also the inner strength of the Brotherhood. Their martyrdom appeared a total defeat of the mission of the Church during the conflict. It seemed a sad and shameful end to a fairy-tale of miracles and wonders by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was scathingly accused of messing around with their vocation and alleging that MBH has lost her power to work miracles. It was, as claimed, why the bullets did not diverge from them as the arrows and spears as held by oral history and tradition of MBH.

Melanesian Brotherhood Martyr Graves
Melanesian Brotherhood Martyrs Buried At Tabalia

The big question then was why they went knowingly too well that Brother Nathanael has been murdered. Was it safe to go in search for him? What inspired them to take on the risky mission that cost their lives?

There are a lot of reasons which people are entitled to in answering the questions; answers that would help us look deeply into the heart of their mission. Some are based on guess work and may not be true to the context of the Brotherhood for which they went, others maybe reasonable. I wish to share on two points today to assist in the ongoing vocation, discipleship and mission and ministry of the Brotherhood.

The first point is on Discipleship.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, if any of you wants to be my disciple, he must first take up his cross and follow me, Mark 8: 34. In biblical tradition, the cross pictures suffering and death.

Two things are important in the call to discipleships; 1. Taking up the cross and 2. To follow Jesus. In taking up the cross, one must be aware of the weight of the cross; it might be heavier than expected, it might be rough causing wounds on the shoulders, or it might be too long to carry. These are things that one must calculate before actually stooping down to take up the cross. These summarise the difficulties, hardships, sufferings and death in discipleship.

The six Brothers knew very well the dangers awaiting them at the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal; they knew that Br. Nathanael had been murdered. As claimed they should not have gone; but theirs was a complete obedience to their call to discipleship. They took up the cross having worked out the cost; they followed Christ to the hot spot of militants. They never turned back.

In search of their murdered brother, the six brothers were prepared to do as Christ does; they were prepared to turn where Christ turns; there were prepared to go where Christ goes. He wants us to follow where he goes. Where did Christ go when he took up the cross? When Christ took up his cross, he went to Calvary where he was crucified. Not all disciples will receive the crown of glory as martyrs; not all will go all the way to Calvary; but the seven martyred Brothers were granted the rarest privilege of grace in their discipleship to walk the walk of Christ.

Through their suffering, pain and death the Brothers went all the way in their discipleship. They walked the walk of Christ, not just to the weather coast of Guadalcanal, but to Calvary. They died as their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; theirs was a discipleship in its fullness.

By the martyrdom of the Brothers, the reality of discipleship in the words of Jesus in Matthew 16: 24-26 dawns on the Brotherhood. In the past it was ‘no Brother would be harmed’; they were protected by the power and mana of God. In the martyrdom of the Brothers, Christians believe that the spiritual mana that protected them from physical attacks had left them. But Jesus was very clear about his call to discipleship. He called people to take up their cross, hence the claim that their mana/power of God has left them was an ill-reason. The truth is that they entirely walked the walk of Christ who called them.

Very true the Brotherhood has a strong oral history of miracles as cover guards for the Brothers; they were never physically harmed, but what happened? Today we are commemorating the martyrdom of the seven brothers. The miracle for the Brotherhood today is not the miracle of protection, but the fullness of discipleship in death. A miracle of that encompasses full understanding of discipleship in the Brotherhood. A miracle that ripples multiple miracles. You need to stand back from the pain, loss and grief of their loss to see the multiple miracles emerging from their sad brutal death.

We have the intervention of RAMSI
We have the unconditional laying down of arms and surrender of militants
We have the arrest of the leading instigators on both sides
We have freedom to speak out openly for justice again
We have enemies being able to see each other in the face as friends
We have forgiveness and acceptance each other as one people

These are signs of miracles of new life and in our nation, communities and families. God makes miracles through death. Resurrection is the name of the miracle. In 2003, Easter day was on 20th April; pointing the Brothers were suffering as their Lord during Holy week; four days after the resurrection they died. It may be coincidence, but God works in mysterious ways, his ways not our ways. In the event of new life Christ won for the world; the Brothers’ death four days after Easter was an event of new life for our nation Solomon Islands.

Christ went to the very end of life before he was able to redeem the world. The Brothers went to the very end to liberate Solomon Islands. Christ’s resurrection brought new life to mankind; the martyrdom of the Brothers restored peace and new life in our nation. When the Roman soldiers thought that they have succeeded in removing Christ from public domain by crucifying him, it was then that new life dawns. When the militants thought they have succeeded in murdering the Brothers, it was then that restoration of peace, new life and freedom for Solomon Islands dawns.

Just as Christ died on the wood of the cross, the Brothers died under the barrels of high-powered guns. Christ who called them to take up their cross and follow him lead them in the true way of service. They followed him with profound dedication, a challenge for our discipleship. We may all not end in martyrdom, but at least we must take up our cross and follow him with genuine loyalty.

The second point is love for each other in the Community

This is from an anthropological point of view which concerns with human beings, their relationship and behaviours in their families, communities and the society at large. In any family, either nuclear or extended, there is always concern for one other.

Melanesian Brotherhood - Sign

During the tension, the Brotherhood remained intact despites diverse representation of Brothers from different islands of origin. Brothers from Guadalcanal and Malaita were posted in households together or even at the camps. But there was never any hatred, there was no nepotism or wantok business, and no favouritism. We all love each other as family. There was total unity. Love was a condition or requirement for selection to go on the frontline mission.

It was this love (agape) that spurred the six Brothers to go and look for their Brother Nathanael, whatever the cost. It was a bit difficult to explain from outside perspective; it is deep within the life of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is a family of young men caring and loving each other. It was that LOVE that gave them confidence to go forward. It is clear because it was the Assistant Head Brother Robin who led them. Bishop Desmond Tutu describes love perfectly by saying that Love is stronger than hate.

The fearlessness of the Brothers reflected their inner Love for each other and for the nation they loved so much. Their death, like Christ’s brings resurrection to a nation full darkness and fear. But resurrection is meaningless without the darkness and death which preceded it. It was in darkness the resurrection took place. Their love led them into the darkness and evil spot of the conflict on Guadalcanal; it is what give sense and meaning to the Brothers being martyrs today. It was why the gospels intentionally direct Christians to the earthly Jesus and his experiences before his resurrection.

Their love for each other translated well into their martyrdom; thus, giving the Brotherhood renewed love, care and fulfilment of their biblical motto, “I am in the midst of you as he that serves.” It is the Religious Communities royal law of liberty, “perfect selfless love.” The Brothers were told to go ashore some distance away, but they went straight to the stronghold of the militants. Was this disobedience? Literally, yes, but deep down it was a way of unlocking the love of God for this nation; something that pushed them on. The Brothers had primary knowledge of the impending dangers awaiting them on the ground.

One can argue whichever way; or their death can be contradicted, but one must also see that they were disciples called by Christ to take up their cross and follow him. Brothers and Sisters, the cross is not ‘a past experience, but a present reality’. It is the experience of our own societies today. In the abandonment of Christ by God on the cross, He (God) gives himself fully to Solomon Islands.

Friends and members of Religious Orders, we are not talking about something foreign or history. It the life that you have accepted to live by when you left your homes and families. It is the life the early missionaries to Melanesia, including Bishop Patteson accepted in spreading the gospel to our Islands. It is a life that means either life or death. Speaking of the death of St. Stephen said to his friends that it might happen to any of them. And as they went ashore at Nukapu, it happened to him.

Friends, the seven martyred Brothers left a legacy for us; not all are called to be martyrs, but faithfulness and dedication is key to graceful suffering and pain. Suffering gives birth to renewal of our vacation and ministry. We must live by the lessons of the martyrs, their faithfulness in discipleship and love beyond the bounds of nothingness.

Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger that darkness
Life is stronger that death
Victory is ours through him who loves us
The Lord be with you.

The Most Rev Leonard Dawea, Archbishop of Melanesia

The Most Rev Leonard Dawea, Archbishop of Melanesia

ACoM Communications