The meaning of martyrdom

13775973_10157997317905206_1220316456756762936_nWhenever I travel on the train, I have to think carefully about whether I wear my clerical collar, or whether I travel in ‘mufti’. It partly depends on what kind of meeting or event I am travelling to, but it also depends on whether I want to work quietly on the train, or am happy to spend time in conversation. If the former, then its no collar, since if I do wear a collar, I can be sure to end up in conversation. I am identified as a representative of the Church, so whatever feelings people have about church or religion are liable to be expressed to me. Thirty years ago, that would often have been respect—but times have changed.

I am sure that I was not the only cleric who felt his collar when hearing the shocking news of the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel earlier this week—for he was murdered precisely because he represented the church and Christians. Curiously, some tried to argued that he was not ‘martyred’ but was just ‘in the wrong place, at the wrong time.’ Andrew Forshew-Cain was quite right to point out the error in this:

He was killed because he was a Christian and a priest. The only reason. Saying he was just ‘unlucky’ is like saying ‘all lives matter’ rather than ‘black lives matter’ and demeans his faith and his life. He wasn’t ‘in the wrong place’. He was in the House of God, vested, leading his people in prayer and offering the Mass. There is much that can be said about the deranged men who killed him but in their minds they did so for religious reasons. They proclaimed ‘we will destroy all you Christians’ as they slit his throat. This is surely the epitome of martyrdom. To claim otherwise is inexplicable.

The iBenedictines blog offered a similar reflection, which included:

Fr Jacques joins the long line of those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood. He did not choose to die, he was murdered; and he was murdered simply and solely because he was a Christian. He is thus a true martyr, and it has long been the custom of the Church, when hearing of martyrdom, to praise God by singing the Te Deum. But what of all those others who have been killed, in Nice, in Ansbach, in so many places, are they martyrs? Not as the Church understands martyrdom, perhaps, but that does not mean that their deaths are any less important, nor that their murder is any less heinous. We reserve the terms ‘martyr’ and ‘martyrdom’ for very specific conditions, but all taking of innocent human life is wrong and cries to heaven for vengeance.

Because this all felt so close to home, I was very grateful to Sally Hitchener for posting a testimony from a similar event that happened 20 years ago in Algeria.

Twenty years ago, on May 24, 1996, a group of “Islamist” terrorists “slit the throats” of seven French Trappist monks from a Catholic monastery in Algeria. Prior to the kidnapping, the abbot, Father Christian de Chergé, had left with his family this testament “to be opened in the event of my death.”
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism… I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.

For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”—and this adieu—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.

And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen

Part of the reason that I find these reflections so moving and helpful is that they begin to recognise that what happened to Fr Hamel is something that (increasingly) happens to anyone who is a follower of Jesus. Some have said that ‘He died as a priest doing what priests do’—but if he was murdered because he was a faithful follower of Jesus, then he died as a Christian doing what Christians do.

To see that clearly, we need to look at the ‘martyr’ language in the New Testament. Its primary meaning is ‘testimony’ or ‘witness’ (though two words in English, the single term martyria is used), and the verb means ‘to testify’ or ‘to bear witness’. It came to be associated with dying for one’s faith because of the testimony that such martyrs bore.

Although the terms occur in most parts of the NT, they predominate in the Johannine literature, particularly in John’s gospel and the Book of Revelation—both texts which are about witness in the context of conflict. John’s gospel has been understood as an overarching trial narrative, where the different characters are witnesses for either the prosecution or the defence in the trial of Jesus, with the reader invited to come to a verdict. And Revelation is written in a context of ideological conflict, between the Roman Empire/kingdom and the empire/kingdom of God.

Martyrdom makes its presence felt all through Revelation. ‘Antipas’ in Rev 2.13, was put to death for his faith as ‘my faithful witness’ in the words of the risen Jesus. (We know nothing of this figure, or even whether this was his real name.) In Rev 6, John sees ‘under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained’ (Rev 6.9), again making the link between testimony and death. And the victory of the lamb comes about both by the lamb’s own sacrifice and the commitment of his followers in response to that:

They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. (Rev 12.11)

But it becomes clear that this commitment is not something that belongs to a priestly caste or a spiritual elite, but belongs to all who wish to follow in the steps of Jesus ‘the faithful witness’—a title unique to Revelation and characteristic of its portrayal of Jesus.

This resonates with the focus on self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness which was part of the evangelical spirituality into which I was inducted. We merrily sang ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain…’ little considering what that might really mean, and distracted from it by the jolly little tune to which it was set. But for me it has meant (amongst other things) doing a job I might not otherwise have chosen, at a rate of pay I wouldn’t have chosen, living in places I would not otherwise have chosen, and spending time with people I would not otherwise have done. It’s not, though, that any of this has felt like a ‘sacrifice’; I wonder if that cheerful ditty did in fact get it right, when it included: ‘There is no peace, no joy, no thrill/like living in his will.’

This is just the smallest glimpse of the larger sacrifice that many others in history and around the world have made and are now making. The missionary Jim Elliot famously said: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.’ That is surely the true meaning of witness/martyrdom. And it is a truth which Fr Hamel lived to the end. May God grant us the grace to live in the same truth each day.

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13 thoughts on “The meaning of martyrdom”

  1. By the way, there is also this similarity that Fr Jacques Hamel and Fr Christian de Chergé were both very much into inter-faith relations. I love Des hommes et des dieux, the 2010 film directed by Xavier Beauvois which tells the story of the Trappist monks.

  2. I don’t know the extent to which I can write this but I will try.

    My youngest brother was murdered (executed actually) as an ex-pat celebrating New Year’s day on a beach in Libya in 2014. He was made to kneel in the sand and shot through the head. He simply stayed too long and was packing up as darkness fell but he was caught. It was the first time that I had experienced the British press and what they wrote was absolutely an totally untrue (funnily enough the local town newspaper was the only one that wrote a truthful, good article). He was not a teacher, he was not an oil worker, he was certainly not an oil-chief and the beach wasn’t by a Chemical plant but actually some distance away by a Roman or Carthaginian ruin, and so on.

    At the inquest in September 2014 the Coroner did that very British thing of not allowing anything religious to be said. I had taken a prepared statement that referenced three of the Quaranic / Koranic quotes (there are actually more than 3) that allow Muslim faithfuls to kill non-Muslims. I had not been to an inquest before and either could not or did not make the statement through not understanding the procedure. So I am not saying the Coroner “did” anything so much as simply being aware of my own short-comings of not understanding the procedure / system.

    In a final garbage misquote by the journalists present I discovered how much they actually copy each other. The inquest was held near Bedford at Shefford because the specialist for the post-mortem happened to work at Bedford hospital. Since I didn’t want to speak to any journalists (particularly as they had tried to break in to the funeral service by pretending they’d been invited*) I didn’t turn around and count them all but there were a large number. Thus when the Coroner said, correctly, that my brother had been born in Sheffield (i.e. Yorkshire) one of the journalists wrote down that he had been born in Shefford (i.e. Bedfordshire) and they all copied it. Even BBC news said he’d been born in Shefford …. He’d probably never been there!

    Nonetheless the Coroner ordered the arabic paperwork be used as the official papers and he expressed the belief that then the arabic gang might be brought to justice. I remain deeply disappointed in that. Religion IS part of life there, it cannot be separated, and even if they are found then they will just reference the passages from the Quran / Koran and I believe they will never come to justice. Therefore I am not holding my breath!

    The point is that behind every murdered priest, serviceman, civilian etc, there is a real family of people deeply affected by it and yet now both Britain and France are creating the circumstances in which there is no prospect of justice.

    When the state creates a “no justice ever” situation for real people they stupidly think that they have kept the lid on unrest but what they have actually done is create the precise and perfect conditions for war as France is finding out. The only thing “containing” the war is Christianity, not the state. As a Christian I am not looking for justice in the sense of retribution, but I am looking for a change of heart from those in Islam.

    To the secular establishment this is incomprehensible. They wrongly assume that I want justice, i.e. retribution, when actually I don’t. I want a change of heart. I want God to change their hearts and I know that I have no guarantee of that at all. I think it as a Christian wish but I am also aware that I am rubbish as a Christian. The more I discover about Christianty the more I discover what a failure I actually am and the more I understand St Paul in the letter to Romans explaining to us that we marvel at God wanting a relationship with us when we are actually constantly rubbish as Christians.

    Father Christian de Chergé’s writings to his family are very moving because he is not saying he is a good Christian, far from it, but he is trying to keep his family and friends away from demanding justice in the form of retribution and, instead, focus them back on Christianity.

    Well done Ian.

    *In an amazing “God-incidence” the Diocese of St Albans Press Officer had turned up unexpectedly at the funeral and kept the press outside so I was only filmed receiving the coffin!

    • Clive,

      Thank you for sharing the gut-wrenching story of your brother’s fate and how it affects real people and families, like you and yours.

    • Thank you indeed Clive for sharing this very hard and distressing but also very moving and ultimately positive reflection. May your brother rest in peace and rise in eternal glory.

  3. The murder of a priest at the table of holy communion in a Western country is spine chilling. When the Coptic Christians were beheaded on a Libyan beach the executioner stated “we are coming to Rome”. Rome being the seat of western Christendom. An orthodox Bishop warned 2 years ago that we should prepare ourselves for this. Our brothers and sisters in Christ have been suffering and dying in the Middle East for a number of years.
    When I came to faith and read of the martyrs in the Bible, I asked myself how I would have borne up under this pressure. It would seem that I may well find out. I pray that I, like my Coptic brothers, will cry “Jesus is Lord”.

  4. “Well, Faithful, thou hast faithfully professed
    Unto thy Lord, with whom thou shalt be blest,
    When faithless ones, with all their vain delights,
    Are crying out under their hellish plights.
    Sing, Faithful, sing, and let thy name survive;
    For, though they killed thee, thou art yet alive.”

  5. Why crucified?

    Why crucified we Christ the King?
    The lion and the lamb,
    When every word He spoke was true,
    Why did man choose to damn?

    Why crucified we Christ the King?
    The Voice from Father’s heart?
    Why drove we nails into His hands?
    By sin’s debt, drove apart?

    Why crucified we Christ the King?
    What fears did we portend?
    What guilt impaled our consciences,
    Hast’ning His untimely end?

    In heaven in that shining throng,
    A mystery unfolds:
    ‘Can you, O sinners, here belong?
    ‘Walk streets of priceless gold?’

    ‘It is His blood, the covering,
    That washed away their sins,
    And purged their guilt by God’s own grace,
    ‘Can any challenge Him?’

    ‘It’s Christ, who died, yea, rather rose,
    To take His wounds on high,
    Cry ‘Amnesty!’ to all mankind,
    ‘For redemption draweth nigh!’

    No mortal loss, nor harm can cause,
    The forfeit of our prize,
    To live is Christ; to die is gain,
    Oh, joy! when we arise!

    And that is why our Saviour died,
    Yet, through eternity,
    Our praise as God’s sons, loved in grace,
    Shall never ever cease!

  6. I’ve just come back from the early service at Church.

    The reading was taken from the letter to the Colossians and the preacher was talking about Christians wanting the leadership to be transformed, more than being deposed.

    In respect of my youngest brother’s killing that is true of me because I don’t want justice, as in retribution, I want instead a change of heart, no matter how unrealistic that is. However the preacher was also revealing how useless I am as a Christian because the Church is widely under attack from a society that disrespects Christianity and often speaks from total ignorance of Christianity. It is at this point that I often want those attacking the Church, and bizarrely those expecting the Church to lead society in worshipping the world, to go away and be deposed from any position of any power – Thus that is not Christian and I confess to being rubbish as Christian and realising that maybe Jesus is trying actually to show me something about myself.

    • Clive,

      Perhaps, you should be a bit easier on yourself. Even our Lord expressed exasperation with obduracy (Matt. 17:17) Paul was equally fed up with those who demanded circumcision as a mark of piety (Gal. 5:12)

      Take heart, Moments of exasperation with obtuse perversity just make you human and finite. They don’t make you a rubbish Christian.


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