September 11 marks the 14th anniversary of the dreadful terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. As media attention turns once again to those fateful days and to the masterminds of such acts of terror and violence, plunging the world into its current state of war and fear, I offer some considerations on the meaning of martyrdom which has become such a common yet misunderstood word in our vocabulary, especially in light of what happened 14 years ago this week.
Those who carried out the terrorist attacks in 2001 claimed to do so “in the name of Allah” and claimed to be martyrs for a holy cause and entering into their glory. The point isn’t that Muslim suicide bombers really ‘are’ or ‘are not’ martyrs but rather that people revere them as martyrs… self-proclaimed or publicly, for an unholy cause.
In Islam, stories of martyrdom date back to bloodshed as the faith took root in the seventh century. It became increasingly linked to radical movements in the 20th century with calls for “martyrdom” by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and later with Palestinian militants and terrorist groups. The end of the Cold War brought Christian-Muslim tensions into sharper focus, including inter-religious clashes in Indonesia and the 1996 murder of seven French monks in Algeria by Islamic militants. While such cases are always shocking, we Christians must take great care in preventing our concepts of Christian martyrdom from evolving into a counter-attack to Islamic radicals.
A martyr [in Greek a witness] is a person who, for the Christian faith, freely and patiently suffers death at the hands of a persecutor.
Martyrs choose to die rather than deny their faith by word or deed; they suffer patiently after the example of Christ; they do not resist their persecutors; they suffer death at the hand of ones who, though they may assign some other reason, really act through hatred of the Christian religion or of some Christian virtue. The Christian martyr does not desire death nor seek it for others. The name martyr, which in the very beginning of the Christian era meant a witness of Christ, was after a while given to those alone who suffered death for the faith.
In theologies of past decades the prophetic, the radical, and the liberationist all came in for great attention. For example, Catholic priests and nuns killed for their involvement in various social justice struggles have received a great deal of attention. However, when social justice struggles become the ideological test for the veneration of martyrs and saints, we must ask some deeper questions. We run the risk of saying that the twentieth and twenty-first century martyrology, is a canon of the politically correct: there are martyrs, and then there are “politically interesting” martyrs. In holding this view, there is a certain arrogance and condescension toward those who simply died for the proclamation and defense of the faith, without some further and redeeming political merit.
The era of Christian martyrdom is not something of the past. There is little disputing the fact that the twentieth century, above all others, was the century of Christian martyrdom. And that phenomenon has continued into our own century. Nevertheless, there is today a radicalization of what martyrdom means by some Christian groups. The western world´s struggle with radical Islam is creeping into views of religious martyrdom. Some Christians seem ready to embrace the connotations of ”victim” and ”hero” that have driven extremist Muslim declarations, with each side portraying the other faith as a persecutor.
We are living in a poisoned atmosphere or climate in which many see an Islamic siege on the entire Christian world. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of the “war of civilizations” and to misappropriate the title “martyr”, thus doing a great disservice to those who truly died for giving witness to Christ and the Christian faith.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Television Network