These are extracts from a sermon preached at St Stephen's Church, Richmond, on August 5th.
We are more familiar, and yet less comfortable, with the word “martyr” than just a few years ago. “Martyr” and “martyrdom” now appear most often in discussion of terrorist violence – although the occasional football coach given the drop mid-season seems to count. Yet whether literal or metaphoric, we know that martyrdom is about death.
It was not always so. “Martyr” is the Greek word for witness; in ancient as in modern times, this idea can refer specifically to appearance in a court, where some matter of truth or justice must be determined. But what characterizes a witness is speech, rather than suffering. A martyr, a witness, is at heart a teller of the truth.
In the New Testament a number of characters are called witnesses; they include God, and Jesus himself is called “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead”. There are also references to people dying as a result of unswerving discipleship, but these two were not originally the same thing.
“Martyr” gradually became a technical term related to the persecution and suffering of Christians under a hostile empire, but still referred to the witness of the living, rather than the fate of the dead. In the first few centuries of the Church, a martyr was someone imprisoned or persecuted for their faith, and thus given the chance to make public witness to Jesus, but who might have survived the ordeal and continued to speak the truth about him among the living.
In time this changed, as the number of Christians killed for their faith mounted and that ultimate form of faithfulness became so important a sign to others. This gave rise to the now-familiar usage, where a “martyr” is characteristically and inevitably dead.
That characteristic – not faithful truth-telling, not even willingness to speak dangerous truth in the face of oppression, but dying – is what has stuck to the word, in its present and more varied uses.
When Islam emerged 6 centuries or so after Christianity and in the same region, it inherited that later version of "martyrdom". In its own view of the progress of God’s reign through conquest – often shared with Christianity of course – martyrdom became primarily a matter of laying down one’s life in military struggle. Within contemporary Islam there is a debate about whether suicide bombers can aspire to the title, since according to sayings of Muhammad suicide is forbidden. But in any case, Christianity’s own history bears an odd responsibility for providing Islam with a view of martyrdom that emphasizes death above life.
Insistence on truth and life may still be what gets Christians and others into situations where life and liberty are threatened. The anxiety to which our own society is now prone, and for which Islam is made something of a lightning rod, is perhaps driving us also into a fear of the truth. Events such as the story of Mohammed Haneef show us how Australians’ reasonable fear of violent parodies of martyrdom may encourage us to our own unreasonable conniving with falsehood and oppression.
Any Christian response to these issues must claim the real meaning of faithful witness – not death, but life lived in the service of others and of the truth.