Marc at Bad Catholic wrote the kind of near-perfect blog post last week that I would have cut out and put on my refrigerator if we were still in the newspaper age and if our refrigerator here in Korea wasn’t the size of a postage stamp. Entitled The Difference Between a Martyr and a Victim, Marc wrote:
The martyr, then, is not the victim. The victim is referred to some enemy (a victim of a freak boating accident, of the measles, of terrorism) while the martyr is referred to some friend (a martyr for God, for country, for peace). The victim is referred to a moment in the past (she was a victim of gang violence) while the martyr is a martyr by virtue of a quality she has in the present moment, even after she is dead (she is a martyr). The victim is held up to direct our negative attention towards the cause of her victimhood (look at what evil has wrought!) while the martyr is held up to direct our positive attention towards the reason for her martyrdom (look at her incredible faith, her courage, her commitment, her love for God, etc.). The victim’s death works against her life, coming in the form of a homicide, a buffalo stampede, a car crash, all without any meaningful, harmonious relationship to the content of her existence. The martyr’s death, on the other hand, is in profound harmony with the content of her existence. It does not end her life, pulling down the curtain in the midst of Act II, so much as it crowns her life, a fruit and reasonable consequence of its direction and intention — she lived as a Christian and died for it.
The danger in regarding martyr as victim, continues Marc, is that “we do combat with our dead”:
Denigrated into victims, the slain becomes symbols of accusation against some evil, real or perceived. Thus objectified, they may be used as threats, weapons, and knockout punches — powerful pawns of the culture wars. The person, considered as a pure victim, becomes a completely negative phenomenon, a mere reference to an enemy power, an accusation in the flesh. The person, considered as a victim, becomes evidence of evil.
The 21 Coptic martyrs, then, become not patterns for our own Christian living but symbols of just how loathsome (and fearsome) ISIS is.
Make sure to read the rest of the article, as the distinction between martyr and victim is all but lost today. The only thing I would add to the article is that the distinction between martyr and hero is equally unclear today as well. That distinction is to be found in the meaning of the word martyr, which Marc rightly notes is “a witness, a pointing-towards, an icon and profound evidence of the immense value and the unspeakable worthiness of that for which she dies.” The martyr points away from self and toward Christ, particularly Christ’s salvific death on behalf of his enemies.
This is exactly why the intent of martyrdom is not, as Marc suggests, that we would say of the martyr, “look at her incredible faith, her courage, her commitment, her love for God, etc.” but rather of the Christ, “look at his faithfulness, which calls out to me to repent, believe, and proclaim with the centurion at the foot of the cross.”Surely this man was the Son of God!”
The martyr always dies pointing, in other words. And we are called to look not at the heart or the faith of the one pointing but rather to the One pointed at, namely, Christ:
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Stephen, in Acts 7:56)
When some of the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs whispered “Jesus” with their last breath, we are to say not “Look at what faith they had!” but rather “Look at what strength He has given them!”