When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? – Psalm 56:3-4
Sometimes a picture needs no words to describe the power of the image shown. While these photos are rare, when they come they leave an indelible mark upon everyone who sees them. Such is the impact made by this picture taken on June 5, 1989 in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. For several weeks, thousands of students had been protesting in the square. Their demands of the government were simple; they wanted democracy and an end to the corruption they saw within China’s communist government. A simple request, but not a simple solution. The Chinese government had no intention of bringing about reform. They demonstrated their position by storming the square on June 5 with troops and tanks to forcibly remove the protesters. The Chinese government admits to approximately 300-400 deaths. The New York Times reported that number to be between 600-800, and student organizations within China claim 3,000-4,000 were killed.
In the midst of this tragedy, the was an iconic image that tumbled down through time. It is a photo of a man whose identity and whereabouts are disputed, standing before a column of tanks, single-handedly trying to prevent them from moving toward the other students. He stands alone; solemn yet defiant. He’s not leading an army. He has no power except that of his own courage to stand in the face of what he felt was wrong and stop it, even if for only a moment.
Was he successful? Most will say no. He didn’t stop the tanks from rolling into the square to perform their bloody task of removing the protesters. Instead, he was pulled away from the tanks by a crowd who feared for his life. His actions saved nobody on that day, and according to numerous reports, he too was executed by the Chinese government a few days later. You could easily say that his actions, while heroic, accomplished nothing.
I disagree. This was more than an amazing photograph chronicling a moment in time. It speaks to the human need for freedom. It is an image of one man setting aside his fear and standing for his beliefs without concern over the price he would have to pay. That courage is what makes him successful. That image of bravery was broadcast around the world within minutes of it happening. In the thirty years that have passed since that day, this picture has not only become the defining image of the attack in Tiananmen Square, but it is inextricably connected with the fight for human rights in China and around the globe. “Tank Man” as he is sometimes called, was listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Of course, he didn’t do this for fame or fortune. It is likely that he knew his actions would lead to his death. What he didn’t know was the extent to which his moment of courage would spread throughout the world…
The martyr had become an icon.
How similar this moment must have been for a Nazarene, who one night stood in a garden and watched a mob come for him, led by one of His closest companions. What an image that would have been – Christ standing alone before his captors. Or picture Jesus standing alongside Pilate before the crowd: broken, beaten, stripped down with thorns smashed into his brow. He stood solemnly in front of a hate-filled crowd as they screamed for the release of a common thug while for calling the death of the Son of God. This moment of courage was never captured on film, but its ramifications had a far greater meaning for humanity than any other event in human history.
Take a moment to visualize it. It is the image of one man setting aside his fear and standing for his beliefs without concern over the price he would have to pay. In that, he too was successful. But His death isn’t the end of this story. Imagine the image of a woman with a look of shock and awe upon her face as she recognizes the man standing before her as teacher and her friend, the resurrected Christ. What an image that must have been…
The martyr had become the Savior of the world.