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The Age of Martyrs Is Far From Over

Ever since 9/11 – and even before – the concept of martyrdom has been freighted with a fanatic madness that defies legitimate faith. That a person could become a martyr for spiritual beliefs, or even for political or social convictions, has become bound to the most virulent forms of terrorism. Such soul murder, masquerading as martyrdom, is a scourge and a sacrilege.

Nonetheless, God still calls out genuine martyrs. Just before the new year began, three Southern Baptist missionaries were murdered in Yemen by a gunman possibly linked to Al Qaeda. Earlier in 2002, missionary Martin Burnham was killed in the Philippines after being held hostage with his wife, Gracia, for more than a year by an extremist group also linked to Al Qaeda.

Countless other Christians have suffered prison or persecution, and in some cases died for their witness, in places like Congo, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India and Afghanistan. People of other faiths also have suffered torture and death in recent years, often on a grand and genocidal scale – Muslims in Bosnia, Hindus in Kashmir, Buddhists in Tibet.

Though North Americans are seldom challenged to die because of their faith, accounts like those found in the Martyrs Mirror still resound with a stinging truth. Only the means, not the reality, of persecution has changed.

Mennonite historian Robert Kreider of North Newton, Kan., recently noted there are other kinds of martyrdom – that of people who sacrifice their personal security for the greater good. Kreider was talking about the three corporate and government “whistle-blowers” named Persons of the Year by Time magazine. The choices they made mirror in many ways the decisions arrived at by those who suffer for their faith.

“What faith concerns are so important to me that I’m willing to die for them?” Kreider said. “That’s a critical question. It has a way of breaking into our complacency, our smugness. Look at Congress on the Iraq war, the gutlessness of Congress. No one is willing to put their life on the line, their career on the line.”

In our culture, the nature of martyrdom may soon take on this new focus. With events unfolding as they have since Sept. 11, many concerns for the future of the country, and of the world, have arisen. Who will put their values ahead of their security and stand up not only for Christian witness but for the good of all?

This kind of martyrdom has nothing to do with fanaticism but embodies a selfless zeal that is rarely seen.

In the immediate wake of Sept. 11, there was a showdown of sorts over who had become a martyr that day. Islamic extremists extolled the 19 hijackers. Others pointed to the thousands of innocent people who had been killed. (In one of the Muslim hadith, or traditional sayings of Muhammad, “people crushed in the collapse of tall buildings” are also termed martyrs, something the extremists seem to have overlooked.)

But martyrdom is not a cynical contest. It remains a bleak calling to stand in the place of others for the benefit of all – whether in the boardroom, the chambers of government or in the burnt solitude of death where God alone will comfort us.

This article first appeared in the Mennonite Weekly Review.