Martyrdom and Modern Christian History

Martyrdom and Modern Christian History March 20, 2020

As I noted recently, I am presently teaching a graduate course at Baylor on Global/World Christianity. One theme that has emerged in that rather more prominently than I originally expected is that of martyrs and martyrdom. That gets to the heart of how we tell the modern Christian story.

That topic surfaces repeatedly in several of the books I am using, especially Xi Lian’s brilliant Blood Letters, his 2018 study of a woman martyred for her belief during China’s Cultural Revolution. I summarize:

Blood Letters tells the astonishing tale of Lin Zhao, a poet and journalist arrested by the authorities in 1960 and executed eight years later, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The only Chinese citizen known to have openly and steadfastly opposed communism under Mao, she rooted her dissent in her Christian faith–and expressed it in long, prophetic writings done in her own blood, and at times on her clothes and on cloth torn from her bedsheets.

The other book I am using says vital things about martyrdom and views of martyrdom, but by what it excludes rather than what it covers. This is Brian Stanley’s Christianity in the Twentieth Century (also 2018) which I reviewed enthusiastically, in Christianity Today. But as I said then, the book has some gaps.

Stanley was not seeking for any comprehensive coverage of the whole century – how would such a thing be remotely possible? Rather, he selects fifteen themes that he defines as critical in understanding Christian history, and in exploring how Christians of many different kinds have responded to social, cultural and political issues. In each case, he illustrates that Big Themes substantially with two geographical case studies, with an obvious emphasis on regions he knows particularly well.

In reviewing the book, I had to register one fundamental objection to a particular choice of case-study. In a chapter on “Making War on the Saints,” Stanley traced the efforts of secular states to uproot or crush Christian churches, a theme that unquestionably demands to be understood as a recurrent theme of the past century. He then illustrates this by comparing the experiences of the Soviet Union and France, an odd parallel. Certainly, successive republican French administrations sought to destroy church power and to laicize society, and they achieved many of their goals. But a Soviet comparison? Surely the two cases are utterly different, and even to ask such parallel-universe questions points out the radically different nature of the two cases. I was also surprised by just how little stress he placed on the extreme and pervasive Communist violence, which the regime itself explicitly described as systematic terrorism.

That actually gets to a larger point about the centrality of persecution, state terrorism, and martyrdom during this extraordinarily bloody era. If I had been writing a book on Christianity in the Twentieth Century, I would assuredly have chosen “Christian Martyrdom” as one of my dominant themes for the century, one of its most powerful religious megatrends. Besides Soviet Russia, I would find abundant evidence for such stories in occupied Eastern Europe after 1945, in China, Vietnam, or North Korea, not to mention in revolutionary Mexico or 1930s Spain. Somebody like Lin Zhao would have featured very centrally, as would Uganda’s Janani Luwum, or El Salvador’s Oscar Romero.. I would also have talked a lot about the very extensive coverage of martyrdom in fiction, art, and popular culture, in books by Shusaku Endo and Graham Greene, in films like Of Gods and Men.

You certainly can’t understand modern Eastern Orthodoxy without its vast roll call of modern martyrs. Nor Catholicism. Nor… nor any part of the faith at all? I don’t just mean the actual lives and careers of martyrs, but the process of selecting and determining commemoration. Who gets commemorated, and how? Who gets missed?

The more I teach this class, the more centrally that martyrdom theme keeps coming back to me.

I understand the reluctance to make martyrdom so central to the story, not least because such an emphasis can be used to stigmatize other political or religious groups, whether Left or Right wing, Muslim or Buddhist. But if we leave that element out of the story, we really are missing the heart of the matter.



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