Martyrdom, Resurrection and Our Day

Martyrdom, Resurrection and Our Day September 24, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 7.01.48 AMMartyrdom and Resurrection, by Lynn H. Cohick, professor at Wheaton College (IL), author of Philippians in the Story of God Bible Commentary.

It is sometimes rather glibly said that what the Western church most needs is some persecution but, apart from the moroseness of such a statement, it might be better said is that the church needs a theology and a gospel and a way of life that locates persecution in its proper place. What do you think?

The heartbreaking news from Iraq and Syria concerning the decimation of Christian communities is sobering. The executions of Christians are sometimes accompanied by torture, adding to the horror. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around such violence; it all seems so hopeless, so unnecessary and so very foreign to my life here in the Midwest.

By odd coincidence, I’m currently researching Christian martyrdom in the early centuries. The persecutions were local and sporadic until 250 AD when Emperor Decius announced an empire wide crackdown on Christians. Even though martyrdom was not a constant threat before Decius, Christians talked a lot about martyrdom. And they wrote about martyrs, detailing each unspeakable torture until the martyr drew their final breath. They understood their central Christian identity as one who suffers. And to the wider world Christians promoted a self-identity as those who suffer. Perhaps these ancient martyrs offer us a way to think about the current situation facing our Middle East brothers and sisters in Christ.

My American culture shrinks from pain, except if it comes from dieting or exercise – for the goal of attaining a beautiful or athletic body.  My culture runs from suffering and dreads death. The ancient martyrs also lived in a world that feared death, and which saw pain as something to be avoided, or bravely endured to achieve a victor’s crown or honor on the battlefield. Stoicism taught that experiences such as robbery or poverty, torture and pain, even death of a spouse or child, should be viewed as external to the true self, and as such, should be treated with equanimity, without fear or grief.  What happened to the body was a matter of indifference, what counted was being free to choose virtue through reason. This led to embracing the status quo of the hierarchical and stratified Roman society, where honor was sought above all else.

What then did the ancient world see when Christians were tortured and killed? They saw people who were unafraid to die, even more, unafraid to submit to a torturous, humiliating death. And they were amazed. The Christians’ suffering was not like the pain of illness, which can be endured in hopes of getting better. Nor was it the pain of the athlete who puts his body through great strain. In both these cases, the suffering and pain is a temporary condition that is endured for an equally temporary goal – health or honor in victory. The Christian martyr’s suffering was of an entirely different nature – it declared that the body was for eternity.

Christians promoted their identity as one who suffers in reaction to realities of their wider world. First and foremost, the bodily tortures were endured because the body would be raised. In these Christian martyrdom accounts (and also in the Jewish martyrdom accounts in 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees) the martyr endures the horrific attacks done to his or her body because the body’s pain matters, its suffering proclaims that the world is now run by evil but will one day be made new, cleansed of evil and sin.

Second, the martyrs embraced bodily suffering/torture as their stand against their culture’s worldview. The Roman imperial rule brutally subdued those who denied their power, but no matter what they did to the Christian’s body, she or he would not confess that Rome had it right.  Additionally, the wider culture ignored the pain and torture of slaves and the poor; such pain was seen as a normal, natural part of society.  The Christian insisted that all levels of society are equally able to witness to Christ, and to share in Christ’s suffering – the wealthy Perpetua and the poor slave Blandina – both women died as exemplary martyrs. The hierarchical status quo was mocked in these martyrdom accounts.

I’m grateful for these ancient martyrs’ testimony, for their reminder that our bodies will be raised.  And for their stand against their culture’s status quo that held death as indifferent, that believed suffering belonged only and naturally to the lower classes, and that promoted domination as acceptable to maintain the “peace.” Today, we rightly speak out against the violence done against Christians in the Middle East. I wonder if we might also help explain to our culture how these martyrdoms expose the eternal significance of the body, tied to the historical reality of our Lord’s sufferings. Then and now, the torturer does not have the final word, for the promise of the martyr’s raised body embodies the essence of our Christian faith.


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