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.