ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Christians. Surely it is time to dust off the war psalms in our breviaries, to pray the prayer to St. Michael, and to make those fervent supplications we usually tuck away to remain inoffensive within this Pluralistic Disneyland we call modernity — “Save me, my God! For you strike the jaws of all my foes; you break the teeth of the wicked.”
We need a violent stirring of the spirit, not for the sake of breathing life into some brutish, martial Christianity (which usually amounts to nothing more than a glorified tribalism), but to kindle in our far-removed, ‘observing’ hearts a little catholicity. The lack of creative fury and indignation among observing Christians is neither a sign of meekness, nor humility, nor patience, nor resignation to God’s will. It is a sign that the Church has forgotten she is Catholic, that is, a universal family. Through baptism and communion she effects lasting, sacramental bonds between the murdered Copt and the oblivious suburban pew-warmer, making them brothers in Christ. It is not the reasonable response of a man whose brother is beheaded, to post about it on Facebook and go about his day. The most reasonable response is the cry of the Psalmist: “As the smoke is dispersed, disperse them; as wax is melted by fire, so may the wicked perish before God.” To realize and re-cognize this family of love we call the Church, in whose arms we do not ‘observe,’ but know and feel the death of our brothers and sisters — that’s why we need a furious cry for justice.
But is a Christian fury possible? It is a common critique of that the Holy Faith saps the rebellious, life-preserving spirit from our limbs and encourages believers to blithely accept death, as if martyrdom were no more than an inability to stand up for ourselves, as if St. Lawrence, cooked over an open fire by his tormentors, said “turn me over, this side is done” in a spirit of sniveling servility. Nietzsche summarized the thought: “From the beginning, Christian faith has meant a sacrifice: the sacrifice of freedom, pride, spiritual self-confidence; it has meant subjugation and self-derision, self-mutilation.” Why, if the martyrs are to go meekly to their death, should we respond with fury? If martyrdom is such a coveted crown, why should the observing, American Christian do anything but thank ISIS for providing for the coronation?
But the meekness with which the martyrs are to face death is made difficult and incomprehensible by the fire with which they die. One need look no further than to the first martyr, St. Stephen, for an exemplar. He dies for love of Christ, in an excess of strength, compelled by a truth which he could not forsake. There are three moments in this Saint’s most glorious exit (Acts 7); three powerful rebuttals to the Nietzschean critique which instruct us in our proper response to the intolerable attacks of those who, with all the preening vanity of a middle-schooler with a Snapchat and a pathological addiction to selfies, post videos of their idiotic, sanctimonious murders.
His martyrdom is, first, the condemnation of the very spiritual substance of his murderers. He cries: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” By his death he holds his murderers accountable, not for their particular murder, but for the very state of their souls. He lifts them up to the very judgment seat of God. He speaks with fury — not without reason, nor without virtue — but with fierce passion nonetheless. All martyrs, whether silent or crying out, are an embodied conscience, a living witness against sin, and an incarnate cry for justice before Almighty God.
Secondly, his death is efficacious. “When they heard this, they were infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him.” His witness cuts them, and indeed, represents a victory of truth over error, as Socrates’ death was a victory. His martyrdom sets Saul, who was watching, on the road to persecute the Church, where he is converted by Jesus Christ to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
This is an obvious example of that pithy phrase from Tertullian: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” That is, the blood of the martyrs is victorious, convincing, and an effective means of converting souls to Christ, a victory which far outweighs the pain of death, making their death, not just meaningful, but so meaningful that one wonders if there is any other way to die. The Christian does not go to his death to waste himself, to mutilate his flesh, to abdicate his existence. He goes, with trembling or with courage, for the glory of God and for the Gospel. He achieves an end, a goal, and a victory — whereas the average death does not achieve, but merely arrives.
And finally, his death is forgiving. “Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep.” The martyr’s death undercuts and renders void even the gratuitous sense of victory his enemies might receive from killing him, for he begs that they will enter into Heaven, where all will be as one. Thus he affirms that their murder, so seemingly vicious and frightening, is really the perverse and foolish tragedy of fratricide.
I think we might take an example from the martyr Stephen, to respond to the death of our brothers and sisters with an indignation, condemnation and terrible fury; with efficacious words, prayers and actions; with the forgiveness that the world cannot comprehend. We tend to speak much of the last two principles, of forgiveness and prayer, without practicing the first. But it is precisely our indignation and our cries for justice, our reasonable insults of the stiff-necked murderers, that makes our forgiveness and our prayer something Catholic — a real response of the heart to the murder of our family.