First-hand witnesses

Daily Reading for June 22 • Alban, First Martyr of Britain, c. 304

The word “martyr” derives from the Greek for a first-hand witness: one whose knowledge derives from personal observation. Its first appearances in Christian literature—Matthew 18:16 and Mark 14:63—carry this original meaning: that the Apostles were “witnesses” of Christ’s activities and sayings. However, since this witness got them into trouble with the law, where they were regarded as unreliable citizens in refusing to pay respects to the state deities, the word began to carry the added significance of conveying the risk of physical punishment, or even death, for their persistence. . . . Thus tradition has it that beginning with St. Stephen and all of the original Apostles, martyrdom was the price that the early witnesses to the Christian faith were likely to pay. Within the lifetime of the first generation of the Christian era, therefore, the term took on the meaning that it has retained to the present day: one who out of devotion to any aspect of Christian faith or practice, suffers torture and death at the hands of a hostile regime or populace. . . .

The title of martyr so grew in prestige that new questions needed answering: could one consciously seek out death for Christ’s sake—by vandalizing the shrines of the Roman gods, or insulting the magistrates, as some fanatics were moved to do, for example—and thus assure both historical fame and eternal salvation in one stroke? Could one become a martyr by accident? Would martyrdom alone atone for one’s sins? Was a life of heroic Christian witness—in prison or exile, for example—that did not actually end in violent death, that of a martyr? The orthodox positions on these questions gradually emerged: that it was rash to seek out death, but reprehensible to avoid it; that one was obligated to proclaim one’s faith only if challenged, and then one was not permitted to deny it; and that the title of martyr was denied to those who deliberately vandalized official shrines and suffered the consequences. . . .

As Christian belief—despite its contrary principles—became identified with imperialism and colonial exploitation, its adherents who suffered death at the hands of anti-colonial activists might lay claim to the title of martyr. Similarly, the religious wars that followed the Reformation produced victims of conscience on several sides. These developments introduced new complications bearing upon the circumstances and motivations of the executioners and executed alike. Whatever the problems surrounding any historical circumstance, local martyrologies have developed in almost every region of the globe where Christianity has flourished. And these martyrologies continue to grow. Thus there are marytrologies in countries as dispersed as Uganda, Japan, Egypt, El Salvador, and Canada, and with dates ranging from the first to the twentieth centuries in the Christian era.

From Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology, and Politics of Self-Sacrifice by Rona M. Fields et al. (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004).

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