What is a martyr?
There is a general consensus as to the meaning of the word today, which can be found everywhere from Wikipedia to academia. First, Wikipedia:
A martyr (Greek: μάρτυς, mártys, “witness”; stem μάρτυρ-, mártyr-) is somebody who suffers persecution and/or death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, and/or refusing to advocate a belief or cause of either a religious or secular nature.
Next, academia (from Jan Willem van Henten’s Martyrdom and Noble Death: Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity):
[A] martyr is a person who in an extremely hostile situation prefers a violent death to compliance with a demand of the (usually pagan) authorities.
It is such a familiar definition to us that it can be difficult to detect the crucial piece that is omitted here compared to the way the word is used in Scripture.
We can see from many New Testament passages (like Acts 1:8) the English equivalent for the Greek word, martyr:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
A martyr is a witness. But a witness to what? Here is where we can detect the crucial piece that is often missing from our modern definition.
For most of Christian history, the answer to the question, “What do martyrs witness to?” was never in doubt:
Martyrs witness in word and deed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, son of God, as according to the Scriptures.
As Alice Dailey explains in her book, The English Martyr from Reformation to Revolution,
In the Christian tradition, the ideal martyr story is one that replicates as closely as possible the persecutions of pious biblical figures, namely the Maccabees martyrs of the Old Testament, Jesus, and persecuted apostles like Stephen and Peter.
Why is there such an emphasis on exact replication? What is it that Jesus wants to make sure we do not leave out?
What Jesus embodies–and what Stephen and Peter witness to–is described by the preeminent Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori this way, in his Theology of the Pain of God:
The living and true God must sentence us sinners to death. This is the manifestation of “his wrath”… This wrath of God is absolute and firm…
The “pain” of God reflects his will to the love the objects of his wrath… Luther sees “God fighting with God” at Golgotha (da streydet Gott mit Gott). God who must sentence sinners to death fought with God who wishes to love them. The fact that this fighting God is not two different Gods but the same God causes his pain. Here heart is opposed to heart within God. “God opened the way for man’s atonement by experiencing unspeakable suffering, going through agonies, and offering himself as sacrifice…
The Lord was unable to resolve our death without putting himself to death. God himself was broken, was wounded, and suffered, because he embraced those who should not be embraced (pp. 21-22).
The thought is hardly unique to Luther; Kitamori goes on (pp. 154-155) to quote at length Calvin’s formulation of the same concept. What is germane for our discussion here is that this is what Christ calls martyrs to witness to in word and deed.
As Dailey notes, however, the focus of the martyr’s witness took a decisive shift during the Protestant Reformation in England. Instead of being what she calls a “strict typological repetition”–the re-presentation of the love of Christ to the martyr’s enemies, as according to the pattern of Christ (and Stephen, and Peter, and Paul), martyrdom became “Charles I’s defense of individual conscience–an abstract, figurative form of martyrdom that survives into modernity”:
In the violent upheaval that marked the Protestant Reformation in England, both Catholics and Protestants labored to inscribe their suffering believers into the paradigm of Christian martyrdom, often under circumstances that did not match those of biblical persecutions.
Martyrs become those who “died for their faith” and refused to “recant their beliefs.” But this idea of dying in order to stay true to one’s faith, one’s conscience, one’s beliefs, while true as far as it goes, does not go nearly far enough. It leaves out the very center of Christian theology. Says Kitamori,
Our task is to witness to the gospel. Before we can talk about the gospel, we must hear it and see it. Our words are empty if we talk about the gospel without hearing and seeing it…
The gospel is the gospel of the cross. This means that God loves the objects of his wrath and that he, in his love, embraces men alienated from him… [W]hat is revealed in the cross is neither the wrath of God nor his love alone, but a tertiary uniting the two.
What is a martyr, then? A martyr is not one who dies rather than giving up the gospel; a martyr is one who dies living out the gospel. He follows his Lord’s command to take up his own cross so that in bearing it willingly–in unspeakable suffering, going through agonies, and offering himself as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice–his persecutors might come to see and hear the gospel.
Bruno Damiano writes,
In 1996, Christian de Chergé and his fellow Cistercians
decided to stay in their monastery at Tibhirine, Algeria. They were seized on the night of March 26 and beheaded on May 21. De Chergé left a testament that ends with forgiveness of the man who might murder him and the hope that, God willing, they would meet “like happy thieves” in paradise.
Why does it matter that we do not leave out that crucial piece of the definition of a martyr?
Because otherwise our hearts will only break for the martyrs and not for the ungodly who martyr them–the ungodly for whom Christ died and for whom his heart also breaks, that they too might one day come home to him.
Just as his Father sent him for this very purpose, so sends he us.