Are martyrs good role models?


Chinese Boxer Rebellion martyrsMartyrs have always been honoured by Christians, as indeed by Muslims and Jews. Faith mattered enough to them that they preferred to be faithful than to save their lives. It also mattered enough to their enemies for them to kill because of it.

The Greek word for martyr can also be translated as witness. Throughout Christian history people have honoured the memory of the martyrs. In confused times, too, when people feel that their fellow Christians have been seduced by the softer options offered by the prevailing culture, they have stressed the importance of giving witness.

Evocation of the martyrs can brace the hearers to resist hesitations and reservations and to cut through complexity. They are invited to speak boldly, uphold the simple truth, defend the Church, and bear cheerfully with the opposition and mockery that this might entail.

Yet martyrdom itself is not simple. During the Boxer Rebellion in China, for example, some 13,000 Catholics were among the Christians killed because they were Christian. But for their killers, the faith of their victims was just an incidental aspect of the reality they hated.

For them religion was irremediably tainted by its Western origins. The West was responsible for the humiliation of China by colonial powers, for the enforced opium trade with its corruption of Chinese addicts, and for the economic rape of a defenceless China.

The Boxers killed Christians because they were Western, because they adopted Western ways in the practice of their religion, and were the religious arm of a barbarous culture.

Respect for Christian martyrs must take account of this ambiguity. It certainly does not lessen the respect in which people killed for their faith should be held. They do indeed point out what matters in all human beings: the inalienable value of each human being and their right to respect for their security and their conscience.

For Christians they also point to the strength of a hope that trumps the natural fear of death. These qualities of martyrdom transcend the ambiguous context in which they were killed.

The ambiguities of the context do not reflect on the martyrs but on the flawed communities to which they belong. That is why members of those communities must reflect on the extent to which the churches of the 19th century, for example, identified with the interests and customs of the colonial powers from which they were founded in China.

Martyrdom may vindicate faith. It does not vindicate the alien face which faith may be made to wear.

This need to distinguish between faith and the alien convictions and conduct with which it may be associated is even greater in the case of witness, particularly when it is identified with loyalty: the unquestioning support of every attitude and view held by church leaders.

It is certainly true that to accept and apply the implications of Christian faith in the public sphere will incur some unpopularity and criticism. To defend the human dignity of the unborn, of asylum seekers, of prisoners, of indigenous people, of one's enemies in a war, of gay people or of the unemployed will invite criticism and rejection. So will attempts to seek reconciliation with people who are considered outside the pale.

Even though it might seem unduly self-dramatising to describe this opposition as martyrdom, the example of martyrs and the importance of witness can certainly encourage constancy in hard times.

But not all opposition is motivated by the positions people take. It may also be inspired by church practices and attitudes that the critics judge to fall short of acceptable moral standards. Catholics who defend the human dignity of gay people in society, for example, are often accused of hypocrisy because of the apparently judgmental way in which Catholic Church documents speak of the homosexual condition and because of homophobic attitudes displayed by some church leaders.

Such examples suggest that witness does not point to the Christian gospel if it unquestioningly endorses a whole bag of beliefs, attitudes, regulations, taboos and behaviour on display within a church of a given time. Given that the church in every age needs to be reformed from its head to its members, effective witness calls for discrimination. Witness is not synonymous with witless. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, martyrs, witnesses, boxer rebellion, china



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Existing comments

When I was young martyrdom by execution seemed to be the easier option. The daily martyrdom of fidelity to Christ's yoke seemed too much. However as I learned over time of the slow painful torture that many martyrs (especially the Jesuit martyrs in North America) underwent my enthusiasm for martyrdom as an easier softer way into heaven dissipated. I have the greatest admiration for all those people, not just catholics and christians, who bear witness to their beliefs despite the criticism, hostility and persecution they may suffer. I may not agree with all their beliefs but I do admire their courage. And their example certainly pricks my conscience. More strength to their arms.

Uncle Pat | 14 July 2011  

As Catholics, we are bound to uphold the dignity of "gays" (ie practicing homosexuals). We do that by fearlessly exposing those of that culture to the gospel, challenging them to live chastely, committing ourselves to the same task, and offering our practical assistance and prayers. Unfortunately, this gospel-inspired defence of the dignity of homosexuals as children God is deceptively portrayed as "homophobia". In some places such as Canada, priests are being arrested merely for delivering the gospel of Christ for "gays". This is part of that martyrdom to which Catholics are called.

HH | 14 July 2011  

Thank you Andrew for an article to ponder.
Riding on the coat tails of your article I am asking if there is anyone out there who can find out what is happening to the plane load of unaccompanied asylum seeking children whom the Sydney Daily Telegraph on June 10 reported being placed in detention somewhere in Adelaide , Melbourne and Darwin.

The silence of the media, secular and Church has been deafening.
Please will someone who has the contacts please take up this cause.
I have tried to rouse both Church and secular media and political interest in this story without any luck. So whether as witness or witless can some one with a bit of clout please follow up this story. Thank you.

Anna C North Avoca | 14 July 2011  

Thanks, Andy, for this exploration. The last paragraph, in particular, is heartening. It is a valuable resource for my ongoing reflection on the place of (conscientious) dissent within organisations, including the Catholic Church. I often get accused by other Catholics of "picking and choosing," of being disloyal, due to my views on gays. It's a very isolating experience. I suspect that there are many Catholics like me who struggle in this way.

Fatima Measham | 14 July 2011  

Thank you for this very perceptive and quietly daring article, Andrew. Your final comment deserves iconic status ! I would however suggest that your penultimate sentence might have benefited from the choice of "discernment" rather than "discrimination" - given the contentious nature of that word. There is certainly a tendency for some Catholic leaders, when challenged quite validly and intelligently around their inconsistent and sometimes frankly homophobic comments about gay people, to rush to wrap themselves in the mantle of martyrdom, and paint their challengers as extremists bent on the destruction of life as we know it. (Pope Benedict's claimn that same-sex marriage is as grave a threat to humanity as ecological destruction is an example of this.

In NYC Archbishop Dolan's recent claims that the church is being persecuted and ridiculed because of its sacred defence of marriage is another - one wonders how one could question such claims without being painted as anti-church and anti-Christ !) Claiming the mantle of martyrdom is always dangerous and suspect - gay activits like me need to be careful of it too. Much better to acknowledge that we all fall short of the glory of God, we all have blind spots and we all collude in injustice - and then invite one another to discern together, through openhearted and intellectually sound dialogue, where the edge of gospel justice is challenging us anew in our time.

Michael B Kelly | 14 July 2011  

Without claiming the exalted title of 'martyrs', the minority of Catholics who openly opposed the activities of B.A.Santamaria - because they believed that he was aiming at taking control of the Labor Party - were criticised, even defamed, by priests and bishops in Victoria.

History, and Santamaria's own correspondence, have since shown they were right and Santamaria did indeed have that aim.

Most of those vilified are no longer living but some official apology, however late, would be fair and proper.

Bob Corcoran | 14 July 2011  

Martyrs also have an obligation to use reason to examine their own positions. It is seductive and dangerous to adopt a position that it is unpopular at large but validated by one's own reference group. This can be destructive and ultimately self destructive

Peter | 14 July 2011  

Andrew, I wonder whether martyrdom really is ever able to be a straighforward model for emulation. I'm reminded here of the fourth and greatest temptation posed to Becket in "Murder in the Cathedral" - to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I can't help feeling that every good intention carries a taint or danger of egotism and an idolatry of "being good". I suspect holiness is an elusive thing, like the Tao, or God, as if it can never be attained if sought, and only touched with no hands. Witness is a tricky thing. Do you think it can be most truly discerned where it is least obvious?

Stephen Kellett | 14 July 2011  

A question for HH: What is the difference between a practicing and non-practicing homosexual?

Logically, the question of the difference between a practicing and non-practicing heterosexual is valid and demands an answer.

If you regard sexuality as merely a genital act, then I'm afraid you have fallen into the secular trap of codifiying moral values which cannot be so neatly classified according to law.

AURELIUS | 15 July 2011  

The distinction is grounded in the distinction between temptation and sin, Aurelius.

A homosexual is a man or woman who experiences exclusive or predominant sexual attraction to persons of the same sex. That experience is temptation to sin, since sexual acts between those of the same sex are intrinsically disordered and can never be approved.

But the mere experience of temptation to engage in such acts is not in itself sinful, and if resisted can and has led to lives of great sanctity.

A practising homosexual is one who chooses to succumb to these temptations and perform the (sinful) act.

This is standard Catholic teaching, binding on all Catholics. See the Catechism, 2357 - 2359.

HH | 15 July 2011  

Bob Corcoran must know many people were expelled from the ALP and lost their seatrs in parliament after a star chamber trial by Dr Evatt. They were wrongly found guilty without their defence being heard of being influenced by Santamaria.

Those people wouldn't claim to be martyrs, but were victimised for defeating Evatt's almost successful efforts to turn the ALP into a pseudo Communist party. Some are still active in the DLP after 56 years

Bill Barry | 15 July 2011  

Greetings Bill Barry, (a not-unfriendly old debating foe). But, Bill, it's long past time for you to accept that Santamaria fooled many of his supporters about his long-term political aims. His (private) letter of 11 September 1952 to Archbishop Mannix acknowledged that communism was not a danger and that he planned for his 'Social Studies Movement' to take control of the Labor Movement within a few years. Yet he publicly denied such ambitions!

Bob Corcoran | 15 July 2011  

HH you still did not answer the question.

Is there a difference between a practicing and non-practicing heterosexual.

Also what would constitute "succumbing to temptation" for a homosexual person and where in the Bible does it provide us with a guideline. The bible says "man shall not lie with man", but this situation is quite unavoidable on camping trips where sleeping space is limited.
Is a man slapping another man on the buttocks regarded by the church as succumbing to homosexual temptation, because I see football players do this quite often.

AURELIUS | 16 July 2011  

Aurelius, wasn't your question about homosexuality?

If you're asking for a distinction between non-practising and practising heterosexuals, it's not quite the same situation. A practising heterosexual, let's say, is one who engages in genital acts based on their heterosexual desires. Assuming we're talking about non-contraceptive, natural intercourse between man and wife, then these acts are perfectly legitimate, virtuous, and occasions of grace. Any departure from this situation (not natural intercourse, natural but contraceptive, not between man and wife) is immoral. So a practising heterosexual may be acting either viciously or virtuously depending on the circumstances (married or not, etc) and the nature of the sexual act they are performing. This is in contrast to a practising homosexual, whose genital sexual acts are always immoral.

Likewise, a non-practising heterosexual may or may be immoral in this regard. If, say, he's a husband unreasonably refusing his wife her conjugal rights, then his refusal is immoral. Likewise if it's a couple abstaining from sex altogether out of an unreasonable desire not to have children.

If it's, however, an unmarried person recognising that the marital act is reserved to married couples, then that person is virtuously resisting their experienced desires for genital sex.

HH | 17 July 2011  


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