Is there anything you would give your life for?
I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.
Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.
That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.
While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”
Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)
But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.
Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.
We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.
Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.
And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.
And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.