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Reclaiming the True Meaning of Martyrdom
by Rowan Forster
Martyrdom has had some bad press lately. For instance, one writer (Pamela Bone in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper last month) applied the term "religious martyrs" to terrorist suicide bombers who recklessly commit mass murder among the unsuspecting and the innocent. She wrote: "The world has no defence against religious martyrs."
In The Sunday Age last year, Neil Jillett suggested that Jesus suffered from a martyr complex, describing Him as "a 33-year-old masochist whose suicidal impulse was so strong that he courted an agonizing death". A curious claim, given Christ's profound dread and inner turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane as He contemplated His fate . But it serves to illustrate that the concept of martyrdom has acquired some negative connotations, whether deservedly or not.
In seeking to understand martyrdom, it may be helpful to distinguish between militant mass murderers on the one hand, and non-violent men and women of faith who are put to death by authorities or enemies hell-bent on trying to extinguish their faith.
For instance, it would seem less than fair to put Australian missionary martyr Graham Staines and his two young sons in the same boat as the brutal killers of Bali or the Middle East. The same would apply to millions of Christian martyrs down the centuries, from Polycarp of Smyrna to Oscar Romero in El Salvador, from John Hus in Prague to John and Betty Stam in China, from Savonarola in Florence to Stan Dale in Irian Jaya, from Janani Luwum in Uganda to the Auca Five in Ecuador.
It must be conceded that Christianity, in some of its more imperfect institutional manifestations, has not always displayed the true spirit of the martyrs. The instigators of the Crusades, and the perpetrators of the Inquisitions, for example, manifestly failed to follow the non-violent example of the Founder of the faith they purported to defend.
Their misguided excesses, however, should not detract from the recognition and admiration due to the many who have chosen the Christ-like path of sacrificial compassion in life, and in some cases, ultimate self-giving commitment in death.
The vast contrast between the spirit and the motives of true martyrs such as these on the one hand, and of suicide killers on the other, is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in the dying words of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who prayed for his killers as he was being stoned to death, "Lay not this sin to their charge". In this, Stephen was emulating Christ, who prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
These were the words quoted by Graham Staines' widow Gladys, when she welcomed the leaders of a multi-faith pilgrimage that had travelled across India to her missionary compound, in a demonstration of unity, solidarity and inter-faith co-operation in the wake of the Orissa atrocity.
In a profoundly moving encounter, Mrs. Staines greeted the pilgrims as her brothers and sisters, and told them that the same Jesus who prayed for His executioners had given her the strength to honestly forgive those who had burnt to death her husband and two young sons.
And Gladys Staines has remained in India to carry on the work among lepers and outcasts to which her husband had devoted 34 years of his life.
The life and death of Graham Staines, and the continuing faithful ministry of his widow, have profoundly affected many people in India and beyond - people who have seen horrific evil repaid with gentle good, hatred repaid with forgiveness, and darkness penetrated by true Light.
The first chapter of John's Gospel describes Jesus as the Light who came into the world to illuminate humankind, and to rescue us from the forces of darkness. The history of Christian martyrdom over the last two millennia shows these dark forces (in various manifestations) have been prepared to go to extreme and brutal lengths, to try to thwart God's redemptive intent.
The earliest attempt was the slaughter of the innocents ordered by King Herod, who sought to destroy the infant Christ. Three decades later, religious and political forces conspired to bring about Christ's execution. Their apparent success proved short-lived, and supremely counter-productive.
In the years that followed, murderous tyrants like Nero and Caligula initiated wave upon wave of persecution and attempted extermination of Christ's followers, and that persecution continues to this day in many parts of the world. It's an astonishing statistic that more Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined.
The most remarkable thing about this persecution, of course, is that it has comprehensively failed to achieve its objective. It has spectacularly backfired. The Carthaginian church father Tertullian wrote: "Our numbers increase, as often as you cut us down: the blood of Christians is the seed." This has been traditionally rendered as: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."
And so it has proved to be ever since. It is the Christian belief that by virtue of His conquest of death, the risen Christ inspires and empowers His followers (such as Graham Staines) to live sacrificial lives of service to others, and if necessary, to die a sacrificial death, quietly confident in the expectation that having shared in Christ's death, they will also share in His resurrection, as will all who put their trust in Him.
Charles Wesley wrote of this in his famous Christmas hymn: "Hail the heaven-born Prince of peace, Hail the Son of righteousness. Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the new-born King."
* Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist.