Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What is a Martyr?

The deaths in Oregon were tragic. It's a terrible loss. Violence is awful. I am against it. Yet at the same time, using martyr language or even saying these people were killed for their faith sort of sits hard in my stomach. It doesn't feel right.

Maybe it's as simple as our difficult relationship with the word faith. Is it simply something we claim? Do we say the words, make intellectual assent, choose to join - is that all it takes?

Yes and no.

Certainly, being willing to claim Christianity with a gun to your head speaks to the importance of that association. Being identified as a Christian was really important to these people. I can't even begin to imagine the difficulty of that decision. I remember, as a child, being terrified that this might someday be a reality for me. I'm sure it wasn't constant, but it seemed like a constant challenge from people in the church - "is your faith strong enough to stand up to torture." I remember spending significant adolescent time worried about this (Lord, help us be better). I was worried mostly because I was pretty sure I'd wuss out. Now, as an adult, I don't worry. I know I'd wuss out and deny Christ. I'm not proud of it - but if all it took were saying a couple words to save my life - I'm pretty sure I'd say them (and I'm confident God would forgive me).

But it's not about the words, right? That's the whole point.

In Roman times, no magistrate would have to ask the Christians if they were Christian. Being a Christian was a very defined lifestyle - it was obvious to anyone who saw you interacting (or not interacting) in society. Christians did things differently. People knew it. When Christians were being killed, it wasn't for some statement they made or idea they professed; it wasn't even an important identity they assumed - it was a life they lead, choices they made. The original Christian martyrs were killed for a long period of faithfulness over time that rubbed against what was expected in society.

Yes, there might be a broad dictionary definition of "martyr" that includes this occurrence in Oregon, but it's a definition lacking real distinction and context.

Those who died in this most recent shooting certainly died because their Christian identity was important to them, but it wasn't martyrdom, it wasn't a religious killing. The shooter had no way of knowing the faith of these people, he could only ask how they identified. These people certainly showed more courage than I'd be able to muster in that situation and I hope they all died with the confidence of knowing God's peace and love, but this simply wasn't a religious statement. This was the terrible action of a sick man who'd clearly been hurt by Christians in his life.

We could say these victims died not for their faith, but for the lack of faith shown by others.

It doesn't undermine the faith of those who died - I don't know then anymore than the gunman did, so it's impossible to even speculate. It doesn't put into doubt their faith claims or the value of their lives. It doesn't even reduce the impact of such courageous testimony. I'm just not sure it qualifies as martyrdom. Martyrdom takes more than a moment.

The priest who's gunned down by gang members because he's pulling their runners off the streets and into afterschool programs is a martyr. The woman, beaten and killed for helping prostitutes to freedom is a martyr. Their words might be the impetus for the trigger to be pulled, but it was their actions that got them killed.

The other element that seems important is society's response. A martyr's death is typically cause for celebration or indifference among the general population. A martyr doesn't die to collective horror. Christians were martyred as entertainment in Rome, people bought tickets to cheer as they died. Many martyrs toil in obscurity around the world, giving their lives for a moment of solace amongst the suffering of the world's poor.

When that gunman opened fire on the Sikh temple, it wasn't because of the faith of the adherents. They died because some guy confused them with Muslims. Even if they'd been actual Muslims, it still wouldn't have been a death for their faith, but a death because someone else, somewhere else represented their faith in ways they wouldn't agree with.

If some Roman were hauled before the authorities by mistake - he'd be shouting at the top of his lungs, "I'm not a Christian," but those words certainly aren't enough. He'd have to prove his identity and he'd do it by pointing to his actions. This is what I do because I'm not one of those Christians. He'd get off, if he got off, because he proved his life looked differently than the Christian lives they were out to end.

Peter Rollins has a great, harrowing short story in his book, The Orthodox Heretic, where a man is acquitted of being a Christian and robbed of martyrdom despite his admission and attempts to prove his faithfulness. He's acquitted because his lifestyle doesn't show anything but church attendance and Bible reading. There's no evidence of a specifically Christian lifestyle.

What if the first person asked in Oregon hadn't been a Christian, but thought saying "yes," would save his life? Would that claim have made him a Christian? Likewise, what if the second person asked, knowing what answer meant life, had said, "no," despite a long life of faith and Christian action, would it have somehow invalidated her claim to Christ?

There's got to be something more.

This shouldn't discount the tragedy of events, but it, perhaps, should be an avenue of challenge for Christians. It does indeed take an incredible amount of courage to claim Christ, knowing it could mean your immediate death - in some ways, though, it takes as much, if not more, courage to live out your faith over the course of decades - to love the unlovable, to be on the side of the rejected, to move against culture and be labeled an oddball.

I'm not sure I have the courage to do either one. I do, know, though, I wouldn't want to be known as a martyr if I happen to die for the words that I say (or write). We need to be careful about how and when we use words like "martyr," because there really are people in this world who continue to face the kind of situation first century Christians faced - where their actions equate to a death sentence - their whole life is lived in danger.

We live in a world, specifically in a culture, that's become increasingly obsessed with masking political maneuverings in religious language. The evangelical subculture seems even more bent on using the language of religious war. We really need to push back against it, naming an condemning power games cloaked in religious language.

A shooting, like Columbine, like the one in Oregon, is tragic. It is a senseless loss of human life, a great tragedy for those families who lost loved ones and for the community and nation as a whole. It's a detriment to creation and something that should spur us to live differently. I'm just not comfortable calling it martyrdom. Making it religious seems almost a distraction from the realities involved. Let's call all killing tragedy and work to prevent it moving forward.

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