The power of martyrdom gives Christians an edge over Islamists

I remember a story the Baptists liked to tell us in Sunday school. A family of missionaries are captured by the Communists in Africa, and the Reds say to the father: “If you deny the existence of God, we’ll let your wife and daughter go.” The father is about to renounce Jesus when his little girl takes his hand. “Don’t do it, Daddy,” she says. “Let’s die together as a family. We’ll be lost in this life but saved in the next.”

As a teenager, I hated that story. It summed up everything I thought was inhuman and wrong about Evangelical Christianity: putting God before man and faith before life. But now that I’m older and I understand what life really means, I get the point. You see, life is literally not worth living unless you can live it the way you want to. And being prepared to die in defence of a beautiful idea – or for the sake of others – is an ethos that makes Christianity stand out in bold contrast to its murderous persecutors.

The events of the past few months suggest that it’s a particularly difficult time to be a Christian. Some days it feels like they’re trying to wipe us off the face of the earth. They’re demolishing churches in China; thousands have fled Boko Haram in Nigeria; ISIS orders Iraqi religious minorities to “convert or die” (and they’ve weighted the odds heavily in favour of “die”). But none of this is new. Christianity has been under sustained attack from the moment of its birth, through the period of its supposed dominance (the gates of Vienna were forever besieged), right up to the 20th century’s era of rights and freedoms.

The Pope, for example, has finally unblocked the long-overdue process of beatifying Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Salvadorian priest murdered in 1980 by a Right-wing death squad. His crime was to speak out for the poor. A Humanist might ask: “What’s so uniquely Christian about that?” The answer is “nothing”. But Romero’s human effort to represent the vulnerable was motivated by his faith. A lot of Marxists like to claim Romero as a fellow traveler, but his desire to help was 100 per cent Catholic. He once said: “Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do; we are only as intelligent as God would have us be.”

Romero’s care for the poor was a testimony to the love of Jesus. He was killed because he cared for the poor, ergo he was killed because he was a Christian. The word martyr means, literally, “witness” – and this is what Romero dared to be.

So if the purpose of being a Christian is to spread the word then the highest calling of Christianity is to die for the word. Some might say that makes us a squalid death cult; others that passivity leaves us weak. On the contrary, martyrdom is one of our faith’s greatest strengths. For a start, it gives us a moral edge over our competitors. Consider the ISIS jihadist who beheads journalists. He is not a soldier because soldiers fight (cowards murder). He is a killer who hides behind a mask and invites the Americans to bomb the land he supposedly loves. He is a nihilist who seems to imagine that if he showers the desert in blood then flowers will bloom there. He is not just ready but happy – happy! – to kill for his faith. By contrast, a Christian is, when all other options have been explored, solemnly prepared to lay down his own life for his. The contrast is stark, the choice offered to observers extraordinary clear: do you prefer to follow a faith that kills for hate or dies out of love? Millions – indeed, billions – down through the centuries have chosen the latter, because its sense of justice is obvious. Natural, even.

Moreover, Christians understand that suffering is not only a step towards heaven but also, in this life, a catalyst for change. Last week, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote in America’s National Review that the “screams” of the persecuted demand attention, that tragedy is a way of illustrating wrong and forcing us to do something about it. She quoted Whittaker Chambers who, it’s worthy of note, named his masterpiece of anti-Communist truth-telling Witness. “The spectacle of tragedy has always filled men, not with despair, but with a sense of hope and exaltation,” wrote Whittaker Chambers. “Crime, violence, infamy, are not tragedy. Tragedy occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in suffering and pain, to free itself from crime, violence, infamy, even at the cost of life. The struggle is the tragedy — not defeat or death.” Exactly. Martyrdom is not “the end” for the soul of the martyr or the society they leave behind. On the contrary, it is a moment of extraordinary moral clarity that leaves an indelible imprint on humanity. Thomas More was a martyr for freedom of conscience, Martin Luther King for civil rights and Romero for the poor. Of course, the Crucifixion of Jesus is the most obvious example of a sacrifice that has transformed the world. Witness is the Alpha and Omega of Christianity – the way it began and, with a good and faithful death, the way it should end.

Now, all this talk of dying for a cause will probably cause many readers to shudder. For here in the West we have driven a wedge between faith and passion, in the belief that it can only cause harm. The result is not that dispassionate religion has made us stronger but it has made us weaker. Weaker because we refuse to call evil “evil” and confront it head on. Confront it not in the jihadist sense of killing others, but rather confronting it in the sense of being prepared to stand our ground and suffer for our faith. Confrontation as resistance. Martyrdom occurs at the moment when someone recognises that living through surrender is a far, far worse option than resisting with dignity – and risking death. After all, the options that the jihadists offer us if we surrender are intolerable.

The West faces a challenge quite unlike anything we’ve known since the Cold War. We can succumb to blind hate and go mad with vengeance; we could run and hide. Or we could meditate upon that Sunday school story of the little girl who told her father to face the horror with love – to risk it all for the scrap of faith upon which we build our lives. Faith, ultimately, means nothing unless it means everything. And life is not worth living unless we’re prepared to die for it.

Tim Stanley is is a historian and writer for The Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (12/9/14)

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