To many Christians, recent legal restrictions such as the HHS mandate seem like a “soft persecution.” It is tempting for us to portray such restrictions using the language and imagery of martyrdom. But is it accurate at all? One scholar, writing recently, thinks that contemporary Christians have the whole thing wrong—the history of martyrdom and its application today. Don’t we risk making a ridiculous comparison?
The ancient Christian writer Origen always sticks close to the root meaning of “martyr,” which is “witness.” In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, he says that, “everyone who testifies to the truth, whether he presents his testimony in words or deeds or in whatever way would correctly be called a ‘witness.’” But in the Catholic Church, it is “the custom of the brotherhood… to give the name ‘witnesses’ in a special sense only to those who have borne witness… by the pouring out of their own blood.” The early Church began to restrict the term “martyr” to a select group, as other early texts testify.
Origen’s definition of true “witness” is not narrow. It extends to any conceivable way one could testify to the truth about Jesus Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas has similar thoughts. He says that, “all virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith… and in this way they can be the cause of martyrdom.” Thomas notes pointedly that this is why the Church celebrates John the Baptist as a martyr, “not for refusing to deny the faith, but for reproving adultery.”
To suffer as a Christian extends far beyond a confession made with words. It includes “also to suffer for doing any good work, or for avoiding any sin, for Christ’s sake, because this all comes under the head of witnessing to the faith.”
So is the language accurate?
Martyrdom is an act of fortitude—the virtue of dealing well in the face of death. By it, man keeps unreasonable fear or recklessness from overwhelming his resolve to stand fast in the good of reason. It includes bearing lesser evils as well. “Fortitude behaves well in bearing all manner of adversity,” Thomas says.
When the Christian suffers lesser evils than death, but does so for Christ’s sake, it seems to bear the same relationship to martyrdom that such suffering would bear to fortitude in general. While such “soft persecution” is certainly far from martyrdom, it is not ridiculous to see it on the same continuum.
Our Lord gave us this beatitude: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt 5:11). When Christians bear mockery, scorn, social exclusion and loss of wealth for refusing to compromise with the Gospel, we indeed share in the blessing Christ promises us. The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds the baptized of such things: “You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.”
It continues, “For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb 10: 32-34). Although we aren’t given to die for Christ, we can still follow the martyrs in following Christ, the true Lamb, wherever He goes.
Image: Fyodor Bronnikov, Martyr on a Circus Ring