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Is Martyrdom A Sign That Christians Have Failed to Communicate?

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 06/09/15

If Christians only explained ourselves better, some think, surely they'd love us
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TO: Department of Narrative Management, Image Adjustment, Spin, Hedging & Distraction

FROM:  Dicastery for Outreach, Dialogue, Engagement, Advancement, Collaboration & Wellness

RE:  Martyrdom, Present & Future

Dear Monsignor U. Mountebank,

At the direction of the members of the Dicastery at the conclusion of our last meeting, I am writing you to address the painful subject of martyrdom. For years now, many members of the Dicastery have fondly wished and firmly believed that we would not have to address this subject again. We had hoped that after our strenuous efforts, the very idea of dying for the Faith (sic) would be quietly relegated to the more secluded and anachronistic quarters of the Museum of Christianity’s Distant and Dead Past. You can imagine our surprise and dismay, then, at the emergence of recent images of martyrdom taking place in our own time, along with reports (surely exaggerated) of (obvious mis-understanders) of other faith traditions promising to murder more of our co-religionists in the future.

You can easily understand the embarrassment this has caused to members of the Dicastery. Imagine it: We are having a cordial meeting with representatives of Diverse-Yet-Equally-Valid-Ways-to-God, sharing a laugh while enjoying the local cuisine, when onto the nearest television screen flashes disturbing images of some ideologues dying because of an intransigent and ultimately incorrigible attitude towards prospective dialogue partners regarding the Faith (sic).  

I suppose that we should just resign ourselves to the fact that some of our co-religionists show simply no capacity for dialogue, outreach, mutual understanding and a celebration of the gorgeous mosaic of diversity—and this is so despite our very best effort over the years.  So be it.  And this is where you come in, Monsignor. The members of the Dicastery direct your Department to make every effort to make these people go away. Remove them from the media, remove them from conversation, remove them as objects of prayerful intercession.  Bleach them out of the popular mind and the pious soul.  “Photoshop them away”, as the younger generation might say.  We cannot afford the awkward intrusion of stubborn and bloody martyrs into the calm and earnest conversations with Others that we have worked so strenuously to cultivate.

Please submit to me as soon as possible your Department’s plan to realize this mandate to expel and forget the martyrs of the present and the future.

Sincerely,
Rev. I. Quisling, Secretary for the Dicastery

Why begin this column with such an obviously over-the-top attempt at satire? I have a four-fold motivation: First, I wished to extend my reflections on persecution from my most recent column. Second, I wished to offer an oblique yet sincere tribute to C.S. Lewis’

. Third, I wished to draw attention to and build upon an important editorial on martyrdom, “The Martyrs Were Never for Dialogue, more recently translated from the original Italian by Rorate Caeli.
Finally, I wished to draw attention to an appalling and alarming catalog of the history of Christian martyrdom, drawn from Barret and Johnson’s encyclopedic work, World Christian Trends AD 30-2200.

Taking these motivations together, we can note the following salient points: 1) The Church has never emerged from the time of martyrdom; every age is the Age of Martyrs.  2) Best scholarly estimates put the number of Christian martyrs since the Church’s founding at about 80 million; about half of those killed for the Faith died in the 20th century.  3) The most contentious point: the voice of the martyrs of the 21st century are seen as a most unwelcome intrusion by secularists, anti-Christian sectarians and certain cadres of self-identified Christians. Let’s tackle the third point, starting with the assertions of the editorial cited above, and then we can surmise an evaluation and explanation of the editorial’s most provocative assertions.

The editorial’s author asserts: “The concept of martyrdom, according to these modern emancipated Catholics, belongs now to an out-dated past: it belongs to the era of opposition to the world, and we must not go back there. According to these Catholics, and there are many, there is a more effective way of working in the world as Christians, more effective than giving one’s life, uniting one’s blood to Christ’s: there is the ‘arm’ of understanding the adversary’s rationale, by dialoguing with him, discovering in the end, that deep down, we all think in the same way….A new era for the Church was longed for, the era of complete peace with the world, but alas! the blood of Christians, crucified, butchered, burned, shot, hung and stoned has broken this deceptive idyll…Modernity, which rejects as foolishness Christ crucified, has brought into the Church, the deadly illusion of separating the Resurrection from the Cross….A new Christianity was longed for, which focuses on new Life in Christ by forgetting His Passion and Death.”

If the author is correct, then the witness of the martyrs—their faith, their voices, their blood—are an interruption of a larger and more important work of mutual pacification. The martyrs are an inconvenience for the secularists, who can scarcely countenance those who insist that there is a kingdom that is not of this world. The martyrs are an object of outrage for violent sectarians, enraged by those who insist that there is no greater good than friendship with Christ. The martyrs are an embarrassment for those who might be labelled "secularized Christians”—but why should contemporary martyrs disturb any Christian? I think the reasons may be rational, affective and spiritual.

I have always warned my students against the Rationalist Fallacy which states, “If I only I explain myself clearly enough, people will understand me and then agree with me.” Such an assertion is a fallacy because we scarcely ever explain ourselves as well as we might think.  It is also a fallacy because it is based upon the unjustifiable assumption that people are effortlessly logical and are eager to be won over by evidence and argument. Christians guilty of the Rationalist Fallacy assume that everyone is reasonable and of good will; consequently, any animus towards Christians can only come from Christians who have not been sufficiently clear and have not been sufficiently contrite for the supposed sins of Christianity’s past. But even a cursory knowledge of human nature and human history shows that such Christians and their Rationalist Fallacy/Fantasy cannot explain or expunge secular and sectarian hatred for Christians.

The second reason Christians may be embarrassed by contemporary martyrs is affective. The author of the editorial noted above spoke of “…we satiated Christians of the West.”  He may have in mind a way of Christian discipleship, perhaps peculiar to the West, that is comfortable, accommodating and compromised. The unyielding fidelity of the martyrs, who would rather see their own blood shed than barter their Lord for the love of the world, could only make such merely cultural Christians squirm. Martyrs can have no place among Christians who have embraced the cultic worship of self-esteem. For example, when I was a new priest, I received an invitation to speak to college students about, “Spirituality as an aspect of wellness.” I wrote back, “I am the priest of a crucified God—how could I honestly speak of spirituality as an aspect of ‘wellness’?” I did not receive a reply.

This brings us to the spiritual reasons why certain types of Christians may be squeamish about contemporary martyrs. The witness of the martyrs can only make sense if Christ gives us something that we desperately need (salvation) and desperately desire (union with God) but cannot possibly achieve on our own. Only hopeless sinners who have found their hope in the Crucified, Risen and Returning Christ of God could possibly face martyrs and possibly face martyrdom.  If we are not convinced that we need a Savior, if we are not convinced that a Heaven we cannot earn is our only true home, then all that blood and all that fidelity can only repel us.

Now let’s face two objections. First—is it really so bad? In the 21st century, are Christians being purged, hunted and massacred? A good place to begin to answer that question, at least in terms of contemporary sectarian violence against Christians, is the work of my friend and neighbor, William Kilpatrick. For a look at how history is being played out in the present into the future, have a look at the work of Raymond Ibrahim, especially his most recent book, Crucified Again.

In response to my last column regarding persecution of Christians, one Facebook commentator wrote, “Persecuted Christians in the West?!? Give me a break!” Lest we think that sectarian violence against Christians is a problem only at the outskirts of civilization, consider this report about recent violence against Christians within the United States.

The second objection might be phrased like this:  “C’mon, Father!  We in the West are the heirs of the Enlightenment!  Tolerance and inclusion are our birthright! Even if feverish religious fanatics express animus against Christians, the rule of law and fairmindedness of the Secular West will keep Christians secure.”  I’m not so sure. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared that religious views against abortion “have to be changed.”  

The Solicitor General argued before the Supreme Court that the religious colleges could lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage. A state judge in Oregon has ordered that a small bakery owned by a Christian family pay a crushing fine for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding. These are folks with the power of the courts, along with access to men with badges and guns, who are intent upon squashing Christian belief and practice. And just plain folks with access to social media have advocated burning down a Christian-owned business.

Despite the fondest wishes of some, perhaps many, the Age of Martyrs continues in the life of the Church, to this very day.  Their faith, voices and blood cry out:  “Friendship with Christ is the supreme good—we dare not betray Him!”  Their fidelity should inspire in us awe, wonder, gratitude, hope, and a profound and thorough examination of conscience.  We must ask ourselves, “Could we ever be worthy to join their number?” The power of anti-Christian secular bigots—the power of the state, the media and the culture—should prompt us to ask, “Whose authority are most likely to submit to? Shall we bend the knee to man or only to God?”  The hatred of the anti-Christian sectarian genocide—whether they are authentic representatives of their faith or “misunderstanders” of various “religions of peace”—should prompt us to ask, “Who shall defend the honor of the Virgin Bride of Christ, the Church?”

In His mercy, Almighty God will not allow us to forget the martyrs present among us or ignore the future martyrs who are coming our way. Tepid Christians, smug secularists, and enraged sectarians will not be able to silence or outshine the eloquent testimony of the blood of martyrs. Please, God, let our words and works move us to the moment when the Company of Heaven may say of us: “’Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, ‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’.”  (Revelation 7:13-14

When I write next, I will offer a meditation on Father’s Day.  Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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