Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Martyrs, Correct and Incorrect

Rev. Richard John Neuhas

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Although written in 1993, the observations of Fr. Neuhas still ring true today.

There is little disputing the fact that this, above all others, has been the century of Christian martyrdom. Yet that reality receives curiously little attention among contemporary Christians. Presbyterian writer Herbert Schlossberg has recently discussed this phenomenon in A Fragrance of Oppression: The Church and Its Persecutors, and offers some suggestive ideas about this strange neglect. Additional dynamics, one suspects, are in play. For instance, in theologies of past decades the prophetic, the radical, and the liberationist all came in for great attention. Priests and nuns killed for their involvement in various social justice struggles in Latin America have received a great deal of attention. But there seems to be an ideological test for the veneration of martyrs.

Those killed under Hitler, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are celebrated. It is respectable, indeed required, to be anti-Nazi. But for forty-plus years anticommunism was suspect, and of course many more Christians were killed by the Communists for being Christians than by the Nazis. The undeniable fact is that during the Cold War those in the West who raised the question of the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain were viewed as reactionary. Unlike, say, the Jesuits of El Salvador who were struggling for a revolutionary new order, the Christians massacred by the Communists were resisting what presented itself as the revolutionary new order. They failed the test of being progressive martyrs. The twentieth-century martyrology, such as it is, is a canon of the politically correct. There are martyrs, and then there are "politically interesting" martyrs.

There is a certain sniffing condescension toward those who simply died for the faith, without some further and redeeming political merit. The innumerable martyrs buried under the snows of Siberia have gone largely unremarked, at least among Christians in the West. And today not much notice is paid the brutally persecuted Christians in the south of the Sudan, or the Copts in Egypt. Millions of Christians are involved in just these two instances, and they are under attack because they are Christians. Scholars who attend to the statistics of world Christianity tell us that some 300,000 Christians each year are killed for being Christians. We are not quite sure how they arrive at that figure, but there is no doubt that attention to martyrdom in this century has been and continues to be highly selective.

China is a case in point. Since the Maoist revolution, thousands upon thousands of Christians-including unnumbered priests, ministers, and bishops-have been executed or died in concentration camps. Among Catholics, there is today an official church and an underground church, with the latter insisting upon its communion with Peter, the bishop of Rome. The aforementioned sniffing condescension is evident in a paper recently delivered by Father Robert J. Schreiter in which it is suggested that the Catholic martyrs of China died for "a secondary truth," namely, communion with Rome. The implication is that they were impossibly reactionary pre-Vatican II style Catholics who, had they not been so inflexible, might not have had such a hard time of it.

That contention is sharply challenged by Father Joseph Zen Er-jwun, a Hong Kong theologian now teaching in Shanghai. Fr. Er-jwun argues that it is not for us to judge, by the criteria of theologies now fashionable, the martyrs' quality of faith. "For them," he says, "the question of loyalty to the Roman pontiff was not a question of understanding the church [according to current ecclesiologies] but of believing in the church according to the only understanding available to them."

Fr. Er-jwun writes: "The primacy of the pope is such an integral part of our faith. When that was being attacked there was no question of whether this was a primary or secondary truth. It was the choice between giving to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, or giving in completely to Caesar. Remember John the Baptist. He said, 'It is not allowed,' and paid with his head. Yet you may say that he was overreacting on something which might be qualified as a minor matter of private morality in an Oriental palace. Please don't tell the underground faithful that they made a big fuss about a secondary truth: Bishops and priests died in prison for a secondary truth, religious men and women suffered every kind of persecution and humiliation for a secondary truth, young Catholic lay men and women entered prison and labor camps in their twenties and come out in their fifties only as second-class citizens-and this for secondary truth."

Fr. Er-jwun notes that some years ago at an ecumenical gathering in Montreal the official delegates from China were congratulated by Western Christians for collaborating with the regime by breaking their connection with Rome. Here was a bizarre instance of Westerners not only not supporting the martyrs but cheering on those who had surrendered to Caesar. Fr. Er-jwun's argument is applicable to Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike. Those who choose death and suffering rather than compromising the faith as they understand it are to be revered. We must not impose an ideological test or judge them by what Fr. Er-jwun calls "our sophisticated theological categories, our advanced way of understanding the faith." The timidity of Western Christians in resisting the idols of our time gives little ground for assuming our spiritual superiority. To the contrary, this century's millions of martyrs put to shame our conceits. And that probably goes a long way toward explaining our embarrassed silence about the martyrs.

Copyright (c) 1993 "First Things 37" (November 1993): 44-55.

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