If you have been following this blog lately, then you have probably guessed from the title that this post began as a comment to Josh Nadeau’s series about Art, Politics, and Martyrdom (Parts I, II, and III), which itself began as a comment to Michael Rennier’s Come Rack! Come Rope! So maybe it’s not the most original topic I could have chosen. But the alarming rate at which Christians across the globe are being martyred for their faith should warn us that it’s long past time those of us in the West shed our false sense of security and do some soul-searching about Christian death. So: my voice joins the chorus. Feel free to add yours.
As Josh pointed out, martyrdom is often too easily reduced to a political act rather than an act of faith. Just imagine if St. Joan of Arc made a reappearance in the modern day. If a teenager jumped into the fray of the current U.S. presidential election claiming that Saint So-and-So sent her to anoint Candidate X as the next leader of the free world, I doubt she would garner much attention outside of a short-lived burst of derisive laughter on Twitter. But if she were eventually martyred because of her visions, how many of us would credit it as a religious martyrdom rather than a political one?
Yet Jesus’ own execution was motivated by a perverse mixture of politics and religion that turned Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod – natural enemies all – into allies. The crucifixion cannot be extracted from the politics of the day any more than the martyrdom of St. Joan of Arc, St. Edmund Campion, St. Thomas More, and so on. If Jesus had preached His message in twenty-first century America, some dire fate might have befallen Him, but the government would not have nailed Him to a tree. If it’s not Roman-occupied Jerusalem, the crucifixion doesn’t happen. Earthly politics shaped the course of eternal salvation.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Romans 13:1
If we are to understand Christian martyrdom at all, we must first rid ourselves of the modern prejudice that insists the Church and the State must remain separate in all things. For the Christian, nothing – least of all government – exists outside of God’s domain or without His consent. We must also rid ourselves of the secular notion of martyrdom as dying “for a cause.” The Chinese students who were gunned down in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were martyred in the service of a political cause. I have no doubt their sacrifice was accounted to them as righteousness. But it did not accomplish the same thing Christian martyrdom accomplishes, nor did it happen for the same reason. Christian martyrdom does not exist to effect political change. Christ’s death did not bring down a single official. St. Joan of Arc helped to put the Dauphin on the throne while she was still alive, but her death did not further that cause. The plague that is ISIS has only worsened since the martyrdom of the twenty-one Coptic fishermen. Yet all of these deaths did – and continue to do – exactly what God intended them to do: they “bear witness to Christ who died and rose… [and] to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine.”[i]
Part II of Josh’s series looked at martyrdom from the side of the ones doing the killing, who may not have the faintest idea that they are killing someone for the sake of Christ. They may see only the political side of the coin, and believe themselves to be acting for the greater good of a culture, state, etc. He’s right, of course. I have long harbored an objection to the idea of Christian martyrdom that is based in looking at things from the killer’s side, though from a different angle. My problem is this: being killed for the sake of Christ requires that a fellow human being (or human beings) commit a mortal sin. How can a God who rejoices over the one lost sheep approve of such a plan? I do not utter the prayers of the saints who begged to bear wounds like the Lord’s because I cannot pray for any soul to harbor enough malice to inflict them.
Yet Christian martyrdom – which is often viewed as a get-out-of-Purgatory-free card for the person doing the dying – also exists to save the ones who kill. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this is the case of St. Maria Goretti (who happens to be a friend of mine.) On her deathbed, Maria famously prayed, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli (her murderer), and I want him with me in heaven.” Not only was her prayer effective in converting Serenelli while he was in prison, but the cause for his canonization has been opened. I like to think Maria Goretti didn’t need to be martyred in order to serve the Lord; she would have found plenty of other ways to do so, had she lived. But Serenelli needed a miracle to bring him to the truth, and so the loving Father provided one through the witness of His daughter.
St. Maria Goretti’s martyrdom is unique in that it is one of few where politics played no obvious role, and where the Father’s grace offered to the murderer became apparent here on earth, during his lifetime. As Christians, we know that the saving grace of the Cross was offered to Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod as much as to the rest of us, but we have no record that they accepted it. Likewise, in the majority of cases of Christian martyrs, history either did not record the fate of their killers, or else the killers went to their graves without much second-guessing of their actions. In the eyes of the world, this makes the claim that martyrdom is God’s grace offered for the sake of the ones who killed them rather untenable. But to look at Christian martyrdom through the eyes of the world is to miss the point. Christ prayed for those who slaughtered Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Maria Goretti prayed the same for Alessandro Serenelli. St. Edmund Campion prayed it for Queen Elizabeth:
To this effect only do I labor about thy person, and will labor, whatever shall become of me (for whom these adversaries so often augur the gallows) as though I were an enemy of thy life. Hail, good Cross. There will come, Elizabeth, the day that will show thee clearly which have loved thee, the Society of Jesus or the offspring of Luther.
Blessed Agnes Phila, one of the Seven Blessed Martyrs of Thailand, prayed it in her letter to the Chief of Police who killed her and five other women during an oft-forgotten purge of Christians in that country:
Please open the door of heaven to us so that we can confirm that outside the Religion of Christ no one can go to heaven. Please do it. We are well prepared. When we will be gone we will remember you. Please take pity on our souls. We will be thankful to you and will be grateful to you for it. And on the last day we will see each other face to face.
Christian martyrdom is not an act of political defiance, though the killers may often view it that way. Christian martyrdom is an act of mercy offered for the salvation of the ones who kill, as well as for the culture that bred them. It is a participation in the saving Cross of Christ. We do not always see the saving effects of the Cross in this world; so too, we do not always see the saving effects of martyrdom. But the Christian trusts that the Father’s grace will not be ineffective. Otherwise, why do we bother being Christians?
In his series, Josh also addressed the human tendency to whitewash and de-humanize martyrs, especially in art. I agree with him, to an extent, that such portrayals are unhelpful. St. Maria Goretti did not offer her famous prayer of forgiveness while wearing a halo and smiling. She did it while suffering unthinkable torment and gasping for air – and it wasn’t even her idea. Her pastor coaxed her into it; one might say he dragged it out of her like a deathbed confession. There is no way to know whether or not some part of her recoiled when she spoke the words, but I suspect it did. She was human, after all. And she was participating in the suffering of Christ, who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” We do Maria, and ourselves, a disservice if we think that such a prayer as hers could ever be uttered without unspeakable pain.
But it is not always possible to get to know the historical personalities of the martyrs. I have had a first-class relic of the Seven Martyrs of Thailand hanging on my wall for over a decade, since the late Archbishop Lawrence Khai gave it to me as a gift. I still know nothing more about those seven human beings than you can read on this website, which is a pretty sanitized account. If history remembers anything else about them, it hasn’t been translated into English, at least that I can find. I feel it as a hole in my life, that these friends to whom and through whom I pray nevertheless remain strangers. But then again – so what? Have they not been genuinely “whitewashed” in the blood of the Lamb? Have they not set aside whatever eccentricities they wore in life to put on the robe of Christ? Is it not Christ whom they want me to see in them, and not themselves?
My bone of contention with Josh’s series is the fact that he chose not to differentiate Christian martyrdom from political martyrdom, though the two are in fact very different animals. The political martyr, who in death becomes a symbol for some earthly cause, has indeed been stripped of his humanity by those who seek to honor him. But the Christian martyr, who in death becomes a representation of Christ, has fulfilled his humanity. He has decreased so the Lord might increase. His faults, if they are known, can be instructive to us, can encourage us to remember that only actual, sinful humans become martyrs, not fictional, idealized ones. But if nothing is known about a Christian martyr except the fact of his martyrdom – isn’t that enough?
If the crux of Josh’s series is that martyrs deserve a more holistic, realistic treatment in art and the media than they usually receive, then to that, I say, Amen. But true Christian martyrdom cannot be cheapened by whitewashed depictions of the martyrs any more than cheesy crucifixion scenes can cheapen the glory of the Cross. They can only make the Cross – and therefore martyrdom – ever more necessary.
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2473