Whenever 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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