In a recent, very articulate post, Agnophilo described his difficulty with the notion of Christians embracing martyrdom. If God can be understood in terms of a divine parent, his argument goes, wouldn’t he much rather you disingenuously recant your faith and go on living than foolishly take a stand that will see you killed to no end? What kind of parent wouldn’t understand a child parroting the phrase, “My parents are awful people and I hate them” to save their own life?
I don’t want to challenge Agnophilo on those terms. I imagine parents would be understanding in those circumstances; I imagine God would be understanding. I would certainly not attempt to show Agnophilo that he’s wrong, when he’s so clearly right. But I do want to work a little deconstruction on the idea of martyrdom that Agnophilo and his detractors presuppose. So here are some problems with this account of martyrdom that in turn reveal some reasons that martyrdom has long been a Christian pastime.
The situation – The entire setup of the situation is problematic. There are rare occasions when a lone assailant has a gun to the head of a Christian and says, “Do you believe in God? Well, do you?” One thinks of Columbine High, for instance. But even in these rare situations, it is doubtful whether a quick, calculated recanting of the faith would save a life. Martyrdom more often resembles either the death of Oscar Romero, shot to death while residing over Mass in 1980, or Paul of Tarsus, who was executed by the Roman Empire in 68 CE. Very rarely, if ever, in the history of Christian martyrdom has there been an option to pay lip service to the assailant’s ideology and then continuing on in a Christian lifestyle. Martyrdom is nearly universally the result of a regime (including at times Christendom itself) being threatened by a community conformed to the gospel. What the gunman is looking for is not an admission to “not believing in God,” but an act of worship. When martyrdom is thus rightly understood, a number of reasons are revealed for Christians to prefer martyrdom to disavowal.
Fidelity – The fidelity that is inherent in preferring martyrdom goes beyond mere honesty. It is not just a matter of refusing to lie and agree to whatever the coercive power is demanding; it is a matter of having been shaped into the kind of person who provokes the violence of some rebellious power and nonetheless remaining faithful to the one who so shaped us. We will be faithful to the God who has been faithful to us.
Death of death – Though Christians embrace life, we cling to it loosely, for it is merely a means to a more important end, which is friendship with God. Since we know that death will not separate us from the love of God, we have no reason to fear death. This further breaks down the metaphor with earthly parents, as death in that case would be a separation from the parent, while for the Christian death is only to “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”
Exposing the powers – Another major aspect of the Christian’s willingness to prefer martyrdom is that in the cross and resurrection, Jesus exposed that the final weapon at the disposal of all tyrants, big or small, has no power to coerce. In refusing to be cowed by these powers, we trust in the ultimate power of God, the same God who vindicated Jesus in his resurrection. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Governors and kings understand those who would violently overthrow them. What they cannot face is the power of a people who refuse to fear them because they rightly fear God.”
Efficacy – One of those commenting on Agnophilo’s post said this: “Seems to me it wouldn’t get very far. I mean if everyone’s willing to die then who can spread the faith? I’d think they’d rather live to see another day and make another convert.” Which is a very practical and commonsense approach, which paradoxically turns out to be exactly wrong. As Tertullian put it in the 2nd century, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Martyrdom and persecution generally lead to more converts, not fewer.
Having looked at this handful of aspects, it becomes clear that far from being an optional, unnecessary and foolish distraction from Christian living, the willingness for martyrdom is in fact right there in the middle of it. There is not too much zeal for martyrdom but, perhaps, too little. We in America are not concerned about martyrdom perhaps because we are not concerned about truth-telling and cruciformity sufficiently that we constitute any threat to those regimes that exist in rebellion to the Kingdom of God. They wouldn’t waste their violence on us.
What do you think? Is a willingness to die a martyr’s death an example of foolish boastfulness, or central to the way of discipleship? Is there an unhealthy attachment to the idea of dying a martyr’s death? And if the implausible happened and you had the gun to your head, how would it go?