We should be wary of declaring martyrs

One of the themes that has been emerging over the last few weeks is the desire to recognise people who have been killed by terrorists as martyrs. However, we should pause and ask whether that’s really the most appropriate language to be using.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was eager to do this in his Easter sermons and there are reports of the Pope speaking of the Kenyan students who were killed last week as modern Christian martyrs though I’ve not been able to track down the verbatim comment myself.

Two incidents in particular seem to be being recalled in this rush to declare people as martyrs for Christ. Firstly the massacre of Coptic men on a Libyan beach some weeks ago and secondly the killing of students in Kenya in Holy Week. In the case of the Copts, it is reported that many of them died with the name of Jesus Christ on their lips. In the case of the Kenyans, there are reports that they were killed because, being Christians they were unable to recite or answer questions on certain portions of the Qur’an. Both are despicable incidents.

Having travelled in Egypt, I don’t find it hard to see how or why the Coptic church lost no time at all in declaring the murdered men to be martyrs. Everywhere you go in Egypt there is a martyrdom cult amongst Christians there. The Coptic church has known its troubles through the centuries and many, many people were killed witnessing to their faith in the past. To a certain degree, the Coptic church has the strength it has because of its history of persecution, particularly during the time of the Emperor Diocletian – yes, right back to the third century after Christ.

It may be technically correct to refer to at least some of those who died as martyrs – they witnessed under duress to Christ even unto death. However something about all of this makes me uncomfortable.

To make martyrdom the dominant rhetoric surrounding these killings is to risk losing the opportunity to unite a diverse world against these killings.

I’m not sure that it is martyrdom to be killed for not knowing a particular verse  of the Qur’an. That doesn’t make it any the less wicked an act either.

I find myself listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon and asking what would be wrong in describing these acts primarily as crimes against humanity? Don’t we need to build an ever growing consensus amongst religious and non-religious alike that such acts are irrefutably wrong?

To speak of martyrdom risks adopting those who have died into a vulgar sectarian mentality where my dead are holier than your dead.

We need to remember that Christianity is not the only religion to speak of martyrs and most of the talk of martyrdom in recent years has come from those who wish others harm for their own radical extremist ends.

It is impossible to put oneself into these situations. Yet I find myself wondering whether if I were facing death in this way I’d prefer the focus to be not on my personal entry into heaven nor upon my own individual faith – however dear that is to me, but upon building a world where such acts become inconceivable. There must also be a place for international work on ensuring that appropriate pathways to justice are available in new and previously unforeseen situations where para-state institutions commit what would otherwise be called warcrimes.

These acts are primarily crimes and vile and horrific crimes. Christians should lose no opportunity to present them as such and leave God to work out the religious significance or otherwise of such wicked acts.


Easter Sermon

I could see that they needed to get past. Their seats were on the other side of me – my right-hand side.

I twisted my knees and they squeezed in and sat down.

Two young men. Twentysomethings. Hipsters. All beards and tattoos.

And everyone settled down to watch the play.

And the hubbub settled down and the lights in the theatre began to fade.

And just when the lights had fading, before the lights had come up on the stage, the man next to me leaned over to the other chap and said very clearly in something more than a whisper – “I love you”.

And the play began and I got engrossed it and it was marvellous.

And the interval came. The lights came up and people started to applaud and I heard the same voice on my right, “I love you”.

And the interval and the second half began. And the lights faded, and “….I love you”.

And at the end, the lights came on and I could feel him lean over again to his other half and I couldn’t hear anything because of the applause all around me. I could see his lips move but I didn’t need to lip-read – I already knew what the words would be.

“I love you.”

And what was happening by me was as compelling as that which was happening on the stage.

This church has been a stage this week for some pretty compelling drama too.

Whether it was the procession, proclamations and Passion reading last Sunday morning, the footwashing on Thursday or our encounters with the crucified on Friday, something dramatic has been unfolding here.

I don’t know whether you can understand what it is like being a priest in Holy Week. I find myself rushing backwards and forwards from home to here and here to home whilst the whole story is being lived out for real. There’s never enough time and never enough clerical shirts. And never quite enough capacity to ever completely catch up.

In holy week as a priest it starts to become your whole life.

There was a point this week when I wondered whether my own identification with it had gone just too far.

At 4 pm on Thursday I put on my tumble dryer to dry some clothes that I needed to wear that night at the Maundy Thursday service.

At 5 pm I realised that the tumble dryer was still full of wet clothes, had broken down completely and wasn’t going to dry a thing.

In a normal week I’d have looked around for other ways to dry the clothes and started thinking about a new tumble dryer. It being holy week, I gave a loud wail of despair and then accused it of being Judas Iscariot out to betray me.

Sometimes the story feels very real.

The truth is though – it is very real. And it is a great drama. And … there’s another thing that is true too – but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

The story is real and sometimes raw in holy week because we are real and sometimes raw.

The story moves us not because we are re-enacting something that happened a long time ago and far, far away but because it is all happening now and in fact heaven and hell are both breaking into ordinary time and disturbing everything we normally know to be true.

It is real. And it is a great drama.

And there’s that other thing that is true too.

Oh yes, the voice that speaks, when the lights go down….

Today I proclaim the resurrection to you who live in a world that needs to know that it is true.

We have known some cruel things in recent times. A cruel massacre in Kenya. A cruel plane crash in Switzerland last week. And the cruelties of rising anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and fear of foreigners being brought into play at election time.

One thing that Christians need to say clearly at Easter is that if Jewish people don’t feel safe in our society, as Jewish people in Scotland apparently don’t feel safe, then all people of goodwill need to commit themselves to build a world where every community feels secure.

And the election itself takes place against a background where cruel benefit sanctions have been sold to people as a positive good and austerity measures risk dismantling the safety nets that have taken decades to build.

So many things feel cruel. So many things feel wicked.

But on Easter Day the truth I believe is that this world is neither cruel nor wicked at its core.

This world is not fundamentally cruel. This world is not fundamentally bad. This world is blessed by a God who loves it.

For Christ is risen from the grave and the most helpless situation is turned into joy. From death the most unexpected new life rises.

We have lived the drama of holy week and through it all I’ve heard a voice saying – I love you.

When the lights rose on the King of Glory entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – God was saying I love you.

When the lights faded as he was betrayed – God was saying I love you.

When the lights shone on the intimacy of the last supper – God was saying I love you.

When the light of the world went out and Jesus was crucified – there was still the echo of a voice lingering in the air saying – I love you.

And today, Christ is risen from the dead.

Risen because death is not the end.

Risen and carrying the news that nothing is completely hopeless.

Risen and not merely whispering I love you in the dark but dancing it through all of creation in the light of day.

Risen because God loves this world and risen because God says “I love you.”

For if Christ were not risen, we would not be gathered here, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.