On October 31, 2010, a dozen Islamist gunmen murdered some 60 Christians. John L. Allen Jr. has written about martyrdom, noting that there are about 100,000 modern-day martyrs each year. He wonders why the West seems to care so little about this.
“Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet.” So writes John Allen in his new book The Global War on Christians. There are annually about 100,000 modern-day martyrs – between 250 and 300 every day – more than have ever been at any time in history. This includes the October 2010 assault when a dozen Islamist gunmen stormed the Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, butchering some 60 priests and worshipers.
Martyrdom includes murder but also rape, torture, kidnapping, and Christians being forced to give up property or have it destroyed. It’s horrific but Allen’s main point in his book is to ask why the West seems to care so little. I can think of several reasons. The first is out of sight, out of mind. We in the West enjoy relative peace and security.
A second reason is that few see martyrdom as synonymous with witnessing. Acts 1:8 reads: “You shall be my witnesses.” What do Westerners imagine when they hear witness? Preaching or evangelism mostly comes to mind. But the Greek word for witness is martyr. This is why the 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The Early Church regarded martyrdom as one of the most powerful witnesses to the faith, often causing outsiders to marvel.
A third reason is that few in the West understand an aspect of redemption – human agency. Christians play a part in “filling up in our flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). Yes, you read that right. Christ’s sufferings are in some way insufficient. They’re not lacking in getting folks to heaven. But they’re insufficient for bringing heaven to earth. God privileges Christians to partner with him in making “Thy kingdom come” a reality on earth. Martyrdom plays a part in this, as martyrs usually suffer some sort of bodily harm. Their flesh fills in what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
A fourth reason has to do with our Western mentality – always forward-looking. History is not our strong suit. But in rarely looking back, we overlook a rich trove of Church history on martyrdom. In Homilia in Evangelia, Pope Gregory I described three degrees of martyr, designated by the colors red, blue (or green), and white. A red martyr is the result or either torture or violent death by religious persecution. “White martyrdom” was used by the Church Father Jerome, “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.” Blue (or green) martyrdom “involves the denial of desires, as through fasting and penitent labors without necessarily implying a journey or complete withdrawal from life.”
Blue (or green) martyrdom presents Christians in the West with two opportunities to be modern marvels – fasting and penitent labors. They’re spiritual disciplines. Fasting involves the denial of our most basic desires. Penitent labors involve rectifying wrongs that we have done, even to our own hurt. People rarely witness these two in action in the Western world. Christians who practice these disciplines bear witness in ways that Jesus said are powerful.
Red and white martyrdom are not as accessible for those in the West. But Western Christians can learn about martyrdom and pray for modern-day martyrs. Red martyrdom continues to this day, in places like Syria and North Korea. If you’d like to know more and pray for these modern marvels, subscribe to: Persecution.com. It’s a good start to stop the appalling indifference to martyrdom that marks so many Christians in the West.
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