Christians are being persecuted and killed in countries across the globe right now, simply because of their faith. This, of course, is nothing new. The blood of martyrs has been the “seed of the Church” since the time the deacon Stephen was stoned to death, a mob-style execution vividly recounted in chapter 7 of the Book of Acts. As the letters of St Ignatius testify, in those early days many people sought out persecution and death as the ultimate way of “bearing their cross” in the image of the crucified Lord. There is little voluntary martyrdom today. But voluntary or not, it is still martyrdom, and that spilled blood continues to nourish and inspire the life and faith of Christian communities everywhere.
A recent case in point occurred in the village of Gojra, Pakistan, reported in detail by the New York Times. On the first of August, culminating weeks of tension, a mob of radical Islamists broke into the home of the Hameed family. They shot to death the seventy-five year old grandfather, then proceeded to burn the house and its remaining occupants, including two young children. As the mob grew to an estimated 20,000 people, more than a hundred Christian homes were burned. The pretext was that Christians had defiled a copy of the Quran, a claim government authorities later determined to be false.
As so often, “religion” was itself a pretext. This became clear as the mob accused the Christian victims of collaborating with the Americans, then proceeded to empty the houses of any valuables they could find. The flashpoint everywhere with all of this remains the awakening of historical memory that preserves and reactualizes religious conflicts of the distant past, such as the crusades or the fall of Constantinople.
Under Muslim pressure, the Pakistani government has passed a very severe law condemning “blasphemy,” meaning virtually anything the mullahs consider demeaning to Islam. Drawing on a narrow interpretation of certain portions of the Quran, Islamic radicals have vastly broadened the law, finding in it justification to persecute and even murder those of other faiths, particularly Jews and Christians.
The tragedy is that the actions of the radicals cast a pall over the entire Islamic faith. Non-Muslims witness the murderous, internecine conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, for example, and find the seventh-century grounds given for the tension to be trivial and incomprehensible. What seems all the more incomprehensible is the silence and tacit acceptance of the radicals’ actions on the part of ordinary Muslims, the vast majority of whom want to live in peace and concord with their co-religionists and other neighbors.
Christians today are persecuted, of course, not only by radical Islamists. We are all aware of those—bishops, priests, nuns and lay people—who have given their lives in attempts to bring justice to abusive regimes and commercial enterprises in Latin America. From China and Africa come continuing reports, often ignored by the press or by people in the streets of Western countries, of Christians suffering persecution—from social marginalization to torture and genocide—at the hands of those who, as the Nazis did the Jews and others, find them lebensunwürdig, good only for extermination.
Politics, in the form of warfare or diplomacy, seems impotent in the face of these tragically twisted events. At times, pressure from concerned parties can be brought to bear on those responsible for international policy, but its results are usually minimal, especially when religious or pseudo-religious impulses thoroughly influence the policies of foreign governments (think Khartoum and Darfur, or Saudi Arabia). Is there any way, in the name of Christ, that we can respond to situations like these, in such a way as to bring about change? Or are we left with a shrug of the shoulders and the vague hope that somehow things will improve?
There may well be strong political and even military actions that at one time or another need to be taken to protect the innocent. (It’s hard to be a pacifist in a world like this, even if the mind and heart are both seriously tugged in that direction.) For the “average Christian,” however, who has little political leverage and longs to live in a world at peace, there may be nothing more important or more faithful to the Gospel than to adopt the attitudes and practices of Christ’s earliest followers. That is, to honor genuine martyrdom as the supreme sacrifice, to pray that its victims find ultimate peace and joy, and to be willing to follow in their path ourselves.
Martyrdom has always evoked a certain ambivalence. What are the motives behind it, when it was not imposed by force (as in Pakistan) but was a matter of choice, as with early Christians who died for refusing to practice ritual sacrifice, meaningless in itself, before a statue of the emperor? That, finally, is a question we can never answer. Yet we continue to honor their memory and even declare their sanctity, because of the extraordinary courage they showed in the face of indescribable pain and anguish. And all in the name of Christ.
It is especially the new martyrs, those historically closest to us, who make us reflect most about ourselves and our own depths of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. I wish I could say that if and when the crunch comes, I would be ready to accept all that is involved in martyrdom, that I could face persecution and the threat of death with an unshakeable conviction in the power of the Gospel and the victory of Christ. But I know myself well enough to know that I will never know my reaction to such a threat until it happens. And that if I do manage to face that threat with any shred of faith and faithfulness, it will be none of my own doing. It will be the presence and strength of Christ within me, the power of the Holy Spirit that all of us share and upon which we can call at any moment, in any and all circumstances.
Whether we could accept martyrdom for ourselves or would succumb to terror and apostasy, we can and must continue to remember the real martyrs out there today, who are upholding and nourishing the Church with their spilled blood. We remember them, we honor them, and we ask their intercession on our behalf, that we, like they, might “persevere until the end.”