The one real key ideological difference between a Muslim and a Christian is that the former may kill himself to be a martyr while the latter must be killed by some one else. In this lies the great truth of Christianity; that man cannot reach God by his actions, no matter how drastic they may be. God reaches us.
Interestingly, the term “martyr” did not always mean what it does to us now. Biblically, it was used to mean witnesses to the faith who risked death, and were willing to die for their faith. Now it means those who actually died. What happened was as follows: There were two saints – whose names evade me, anyone? – who were both imprisoned by the pagans for their belief in Christ. They were grievously tortured, probably called names, and otherwise mistreated. One saint died and the other survived. When the survivor was rescued, his fellow Christians hailed him as a martyr for the faith, and he rebuked them, saying that the term should be reserved he who had paid the ultimate price. And thus you had to be dead to be a martyr.
But I do believe its important to realize the previous meaning of words, in somewhat of the same way you should realize the previous life of your wife, or the previous use of a gun you found lying on the ground. It can be important to your life. If we are willing to die for our faith, by the previous use of the word, we are martyrs. Are we willing? I guess we can’t really gauge the answer to that question until we are put to that ultimate test.
But if there is any truth in the world, it’s this – you die as you live. Heartfelt conversions at the brink of death are much rarer than atheists would like to think. When my heathen friends cavalierly say “I’ll live my life how I want and convert on my deathbed,” I’m always prompted to ask, “who the hell promised you a deathbed? You make presumptions like that you’re practically begging to be shot in your sleep.” No, if you live cursing God, you’ll die cursing him, and if you live praising his name you’ll die doing the same. So when asking ourselves whether we would have the moral constitution, the dogmatic strength to die for our beliefs, when asking whether we are martyrs, we can only ask whether we can live like one.
Pope John Paul the Second said that the martyrdom of the modern Christian is humiliation. These words strike me to the heart, especially when coupled with the quote immortalized in The Catcher In The Rye, that “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” We live in a world where the easiest thing we could do is run our mouths off about being willing to die for or faith. We could shout it from a mountain, we could advertise our willingness to be decapitated on national television. But the truth we have to admit is that no one is going to kill us. Not here. What takes strength is living, not dying. Our martyrdom today is not the sword, but the equally sharp and painful comments about our own hypocrisy. The call to die will not be a curt command to an executioner, but the snide comment that our priests are child molesters. We do not face a glorious, personal cross at the end of our lives, but the daily crucifixion of humiliation. That’s what takes work. We have to develop the humility to face this martyrdom, a martyrdom that has no worldly glory, only the hope of the words “well done, good and faithful servant.” Because if we can live like martyrs, we will die as we live.
Chesterton has a marvelous view of this whole martyrdom business.
“If a man is seen to be roaring with laughter all the time that he is skinned alive, it would not be unreasonable to deduce that somewhere in the recesses of his mind he had thought of a rather good joke. Similarly, if men smiled and sang (as they did) while they were being boiled or torn in pieces, the spectators felt the presence of something more than mere mental honesty: they felt the presence of some new and unintelligible kind of pleasure, which, presumably, came from somewhere. It might be a strength of madness, or a lying spirit from Hell; but it was something quite positive and extraordinary; as positive as brandy and as extraordinary as conjuring. The Pagan said to himself: “If Christianity makes a man happy while his legs are being eaten by a lion, might it not make me happy while my legs are still attached to me and walking down the street?”
If you’re not familiar with Chesterton, I’d advise you to become so. Actually don’t, because you’ll never visit my blog, or anyone else’s, your literary fulfillment will be so great. He is the bard of the 20th century and the prophet for the 21st.
My friends, I’m beginning to pray for you every day, I hope you’ll do the same for me. If you want me to post on anything, or if you’d like to post anything, just let me know!