“Martyr” — that word has been thrown around a lot the last decade or so.
What image does it conjure up in your mind? Someone darting into a crowd with explosives strapped to his chest? Or maybe a plane full of passengers in a fiery demise? Kamikaze mission at a secure military checkpoint?
What probably does NOT come to mind is someone standing resolutely under cross-examination, giving a rational defense of what he believes knowing that the wrong answer may be punished by death or imprisonment. Not someone facing the barrel of a gun, tip of a spear, or blade of a knife, demanding someone renounce the faith, or die miserably.
To explain why anyone might accept death, we need a little background on martyrs. The “Suicide Bomber” image is worthless for this discussion.
Originally, “martyr” was an ordinary word. It wasn’t until it was picked up by others that it turned into something aggressive.
On its simplest level, “martyr” means witness. It was a Greek legal term. In our courts today, we call people forward for their testimony. Simple as that. It was a completely bloodless role. You stand up, state the truth, and continue with your day.
But sometimes telling the truth comes with a price.
It’s easy enough to apply the bobblehead approach to that problem: all you have to do is make your public opinion line up with the expected opinion whenever disagreement is unpopular. (Think “Emperor’s New Clothes”) We know these people, and often have nasty names for them. These are the kind of people who were “for [an unpopular position] before they were against it”.
Sadly, many Christians today are just this sort of bobblehead. Is it any wonder that “martyr” is unfamiliar to us in any Christian context today — at least here in North America.
Back in the first century, the word martyr took on a bloodier meaning when hostile governments raised the stakes for Christians.
Then, as now, the State made capitulation very, very easy. How easy? Christians had to burn a little incense, call the Emperor divine, and they were free to go their way. Just violate your conscience a little, and give assent to the State-endorsed belief.
That act, however, required denial of the core of their Christian faith. To do so was to turn their backs on someone whose Own back bore the lash in our place; to sit on their hands and deny the One whose outstretched hands were pierced for us. To do so was to cravenly save their own life while denying the one who willingly sacrificed His own to save them.
The previous paragraph is not melodrama or a rhetorical device, it is anything but that. To early Christians, this was precisely the choice they faced, and how can we shrink back when He did not?
Christian belief (as first practiced) is no mere assent to a framework of beliefs, that can be set aside and picked up again. It is personal relationship.
It generates qualities of selfless devotion seen in other close relationships. Family and close friendships are analogous, but inadequate. So are the bonds found in military service, or other tight trust-based fraternities.
To understand what’s at stake for the Christian in denying the faith, you must first think about what’s at stake when we fail in our lesser human relationships. Bring to mind a parent failing a child; the betrayal of a friend; an unfaithful spouse.
This is a hint of the backdrop a Christian weighs these moral dilemmas against:
“Shall I betray my friend, my brother, the Incarnate Son of God, just to save my own skin? Worse still, what if such cowardice doesn’t even serve to save my life?”
It would be a lie to call this an easy decision. It would be wrapped up in all sorts of competing emotions and loyalties, with every conceivable justification to make the “other” choice presenting itself. Many have failed such a test.
The UCC [Umpqua Community College} shooter made the choice clear to the hostages trembling on the floor that day: if you’re non-Christian you’ll get wounded. If you’re Christian, you get killed.
Taking nothing away from the day’s other victims — those wounded or killed for reasons besides their religion — we know that at least some of those murdered at UCC had one chance to say “I’m not Christian” to save their lives. They did not do so.
For those who do not share our faith — even for many that do — this is absolutely unthinkable.
What can drive a decision like this?
This is a different kind of witness… it’s the original kind. For some, this is a choice with only one possible answer.
The choice itself is the testimony. So real, so meaningful, and so precious is the God in whom we’ve placed our faith that even when facing that awful choice, we would sooner part with our very lives.
This is an answer (“testimony”) that has silenced many critics through history.
How can detractors explain away a choice not made for personal gain (in any usual sense) … and one not used to punish enemies or rivals (since this is an act without aggression).
This choice backs up with action a professed allegiance to Christ above all other things — whatever the price.
In so doing, they have added their own names to a long line of faithful witnesses down through the centuries … many of whom are known only to God.
May their example inspire boldness in those of us who remain.
“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” — Rev 12:11 NKJV