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July 2015 Feature Article

Christian martyrdom? In these modern times?

Such questions would have seemed completely out of place just a few years ago. Yet, in the last couple of months, the martyrdom of Christians in various countries has been making the news headlines.

On April 2nd, Somalia’s al-Shabab militants shot and killed more than 147 people at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya. They had initially taken over 700 students hostage before freeing the non-Christians and killing those who identified as Christians.

In January, 21 Coptic Christians were kidnapped by masked gunmen in central Libya. Witnesses said the men separated Christians from the non-Christians and drove away with them, and their executions were subsequently released in a widely circulated video by ISIS.

And the reports of Christians being persecuted continue to stream in such that what seemed unimaginable to Christians not so long ago is now part of our daily news.

The fact is, there is a long history of Christian martyrdom that stretches back to the beginning of the church. And yet many Christians in Singapore would not have given a second thought about this topic, so comfortably ensconced we are in our own context within a safe and secure, multi-religious country.

So what exactly is martyrdom? What place does it have in our faith and theology, and what can it teach us today?

In most religions, a person is considered a martyr if they are killed because of their faith. For Christians, the history of our faith has included many early martyrs, including most of the apostles, and numerous church fathers.

The book of Acts records Stephen to be the first martyr to be killed for his faith. As stones were being hurled at lethal speeds towards him, Stephen saw the heavens opened up and the ascended Christ on the right hand of the Father, and that was sufficient for him to forgive his murderers.

This is one of the reasons why the theology of martyrdom remains relevant for the church today.

For martyrs, martyrdom was not an escape from this world, but when it did come, it allowed them to clarify what is real over what is illusory. They did not seek to be martyred, but when it was time for them to die, they showed what true Christian living is: humble, obedient living in a world that that has not only yet to acknowledge the Lord but remains vehemently opposed to him.

We may describe the martyrs as those who have experienced Christ so strongly that they are willing to leave behind all they possess in this life, including their very lives. Seen in this light, the martyrs are the true anti-ideologues, for they have chosen faith and obedience to Christ over any system of theology, philosophy or ethics.

Since its very beginnings, the Christian church has been criticized and under attack for various reasons. Many Christians, beginning with the apologists of the 2nd century, have responded with tracts, treatises and letters, to defend the faith.

At the same time, the church fathers have recognized that many of these defensive works are limited, and that the witnesses and lives of Christians serve as the best defence. Hence, Origen, at the beginning of his Contra Celsus, points out that when Jesus himself was accused, “he continues silent before these things, and makes no audible answer, but places his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, which are a pre-eminent testimony, and one that rises superior to all false witness.” (Contra Celsus, Book 1, Chapter 2).

The testimony of his disciples would prove to be the best response to criticism; the faith of the martyrs the best witness to the living Lord.

At the same time, we must be careful not to over glamorise martyrdom.

Polycarp of Smyrna was one of the earliest to realize its dangers and advised his readers not to court martyrdom. He cited the example of Quintus the Phrygian who had worked himself and others up to surrender themselves, but at the sight of the wild beasts in the arena, lost his courage at the last moment and chose to offer a sacrifice to the gods.

Polycarp’s comment was as terse as it was sharp, “And that is the reason, brothers, why we do not approve of men offering themselves spontaneously. We are not taught anything of that kind in the Gospel”. (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 4).

In contrast, Ignatius of Antioch has provided a better example for Christians down the centuries.  In his letter to the Trallians, he reveals his own desire for martyrdom, yet was aware of his own limitations and his need for humility; “For I do indeed desire to suffer, but I know not if I be worthy to do so. For this longing, though it is not manifest to many, all the more vehemently assails me. I therefore have need of meekness” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapter 4).

Our contemporary church has been shocked by these recent accounts of martyrdom because it has failed to develop a theology of martyrdom for our times.

The root of our problem is we have subconsciously absorbed a type of triumphalistic narrative that arose from Constantinian Christianity and continues to be fed through a strand of Western Christianity that leaves no room for suffering. Instead, suffering is to be avoided at all costs.

When Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century and later, during the Medieval period, it was easy then to assume that there was no more need for suffering and martyrdom. Even during the Reformation era, Christianity was still regarded as the one true religion, although controversy raged over whether its true essence lies with Roman Catholicism, Protestantism or the Radical Reformation.

In our post-Enlightenment age, the ideals of scientific advancement and human progress have been gradually assimilated into our theology, and martyrdom is thought to have gone the way of superstitious beliefs and irrational notions.

What is so disturbing in the reports of martyrdom should not be how gruesome they are, but rather a reminder to us of how much we have imbibed a narrative that is far removed from the faith of our fathers. In stark contrast to the vast popular Christian literature that seeks to promote the health and wealth of believers, the theology of martyrdom strikes unrelentingly and unremittingly at what passes for Christianity today.

Dr Tan Loe Joo
Dr Tan Loe Joo is a lecturer in Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Trinity Theological College. He was previously a full-time staff with the Fellowship of Evangelical Students (FES) in charge of the NUS Campus Ministry, and a Senior Member of Technical Staff (SMTS)/Project Manager of the Centre for Electronic Warfare at DSO National Laboratories.