It’s now a macabre routine: As soon as the bodies of innocent mothers and daughters and fathers and sons are carted off the sidewalk, someone from a virulent theocracy hails the suicide bombers as “martyrs.” How twisted. The very concept of martyrdom has been martyred. A word encapsulating one of the noblest human acts now conjures horror.
Genuine martyrs don’t fire AK-47’s in a crowded theater while collaborators blow themselves up near a football stadium and rampage in bars. They reluctantly sacrifice themselves so others might thrive. They’ll even bless their attackers, with Mohandas Gandhi serving as the stellar example. He said this after a failed assassination attempt: “If I am to die by the bullet of a madman, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart on and my lips.”
A fanatic fulfilled his wish in January of 1948. Nathuram Godse emerged from an admiring throng, bowed before the Mahatma, then shot him three times in the stomach and chest. Gandhi raised his hands in a Hindu greeting and collapsed. Some heard him proclaim, “God, God.” Perhaps Gandhi remembered one of the last prayers of Christ, whom he admired but did not worship: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” or the prayer of Saint Stephen, often lauded as the first Christian martyr. He pleaded as the stones flew: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
No sirens scream.
These martyrs are celebrated and canonized. There’s Justin (often called “Justin Martyr”), beheaded in Rome in about 165 AD. There are the twelve Scillitan martyrs, victims of the final wave of persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in 180. And don’t forget saints Perpetua and Felicity, executed in Carthage in about 203; Pope Fabian (250); Origen (circa 254); Cyprian (256); Saint Agnes of Rome (circa 304); twenty-six Jesuits crucified in Japan in 1597; and seventeen more Jesuits killed in Micronesia in the late seventeenth century. And always remember the mostly pacifist 17th-century Anabaptists.
The list goes on, unabated, into our era. Among the latest may be two Orthodox bishops – Metropolitans Boulos Yazigi and Mar Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim – as well as Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, each abducted by ISIS in 2013. Their fates are uncertain.
Such people – often humble and joyful – tilt the modern, techno-savvy mind. No business school offers martyrdom courses and no goal-oriented, five-year plan begins with the words: “I will take the following practical steps so that I can be jailed, tortured, and possibly murdered …” Yesteryear’s martyrs focused on eternity (where will I be a thousand years from now?); today’s pragmatists dwell on the here and now.
Yet they won’t let us go. They sneak into our irreligious world and remind us that there is more to life than bits and bytes. We admire the successful, especially those who spread their success to others: Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, among others. But we don’t hold them in awe. We reserve reverence for Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, the four Maryknoll sisters and missionaries killed in El Salvador in 1980, and the six Jesuit priests killed there in 1989 – along with their housekeeper and her daughter.
Somehow, we see their deeper and richer humanity. We want what they have despite ourselves. Perhaps that’s why their sacrifices – which may come in the form of their freedom or their lives – often change history in ways their persecutors didn’t anticipate.
But now we have these pseudo-martyrs wielding death before they supposedly catapult themselves into the laps of virgins. They’re maiming and killing at random and poisoning magnanimity itself.