The words “persecution” and “martyrdom” are used almost interchangeably today, as if they were synonymous, or at least two sides of the coin of egregious violations of religious liberty. As the popular calculus goes, a rising tide of violence against Christians produces a growing number of martyrs.
But the calculus overlooks one fundamental truth:
Persecution does not produce martyrs. God does.
And he does so through specific training in discipleship, which historically the church has called “training in the heavenly contest.”
If murder is premeditated, martyrdom is more so. It may, in fact, require a lifetime of premeditated training and still not come to fruition; early Christians counted it a privilege to be martyred, and many had to be restrained from courting death. Circumstances can’t make a martyr; individual will can’t make a martyr. Only God can.
But chance favors the prepared disciple.
Jesus describes discipleship as taking up one’s own cross daily not because he is using the cross as a metaphor for degree of difficulty but because martyrdom differs from other acts of discipleship in degree, not kind. Just as each act of discipleship–from sharing your bread to opening your home to visiting to healing–requires apprenticed training, so does martyrdom. This is why the church has carefully preserved and transmitted the stories of its martyrs: They are training texts.
And the story of Jesus’ own martyrdom takes up the largest portion of each of the gospels. In each it is described in minute detail. That is because as Alice Dailey explains in her seminal The English Martyr from Reformation to Revolution,
Traditionally, Christian martyrdom is a repetition of the story of Christ’s suffering and death; the more closely the victim’s narrative replicates the Christological model, the more leigible the martyrdom.
Christ’s death is salvific; the death of the martyr is not. But as Dailey notes, the death of the martyr is intended as a re-presentation of the death of Christ. Therefore, the act of martyrdom is undertaken with great intentionality and preparation. One does not become a martyr by accident or circumstance any more than one becomes an Olympic athlete by wandering into the stadium. One trains, daily, often for a lifetime. In the words of Tertullian,
You are about to pass through a noble struggle in which the living God acts the part of superintendent, in which the Holy Ghost is your trainer, in which the prize is an eternal crown of angelic essence, citizenship in the heavens, glory everlasting. Therefore your master, Jesus Christ, who anointed you with his spirit, and led you forth into the arena, has seen it good, before the day of conflict, to take you from a condition more pleasant in itself, and imposed on you a harder treatment, that your strength may be the greater.
When I speak at conferences about North Korean underground believers, Western Christians will often say to me, “I don’t know if I’d be ready to lay down my life if we experienced persecution in our country.” That perspective says more about our mis-apprehension of the role and responsibility of the disciple than it does about the blessings of religious freedom. We don’t know if we’d be ready because we aren’t aware of the training regimen. We aren’t aware of the training regimen because we aren’t expecting to be led forth into the arena. Our eyes are on the world around us rather than on the word, where Jesus says,
But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.
We don’t train for martyrdom because we expect persecution to come to our country. We train for martyrdom for our whole lives because Jesus told us to.
So when we read,
From imprisonment to torture to beheadings, more Christians worldwide live in fear for their lives than at any time in the modern era.
That’s the message from Open Doors USA, which released its annual World Watch List on Wednesday (Jan. 7). Christian persecution reached historic levels in 2014, with approximately 100 million Christians around the world facing possible dire consequences for merely practicing their religion, according to the report. If current trends persist, many believe 2015 could be even worse.
we remember that living in fear of death is not preparation for martyrdom, no matter how much violence is mixed in. And dying while practicing one’s religion is not martyrdom, but ordinary Christian faithfulness, the kind about which Jesus said,
So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
So when Pope Francis said last week,
[T]he martyrs of today…are witnesses to Jesus Christ, and they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians. Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong. They are Christians and for that they are persecuted,
he is omitting the crucial historical purpose of martyrdom: The intentional re-presentation of the death of Christ. Christ was not killed because he was a Christian merely practicing his faith.
Because our churches around the world no longer train believers for the heavenly contest, we are alarmed, undone, and saddened by the violence perpetrated against Christians. Our brothers and sisters are killed while they are merely practicing our faith. And we live in fear that the same fate might befall us.
Fear + merely practicing the faith + anti-Christian violence ≠ Martyrdom.
But it is the equation for how it is possible to have more Christian persecution than at any other point in human history and yet still produce fewer martyrs.