In the past several weeks, we seen increasing reports of Christian martyrdom in Africa and the Middle East. From around the world we see accounts of horrifying atrocities—murder, rape, and defilement of bodies—not to mention displacement of some Christian communities and a tax on those who remain.
We heave heard about the murder and displacement of Aramean Christians from the Nineveh Plains. The beheading of Christian children in Iraq. Christians attacked and burned alive in Nigeria. Christians crucified by ISIS. And Christians among the “40,000 members of religious minorities in Iraq, who have been dying of heat and thirst on a mountaintop where they took shelter after death threats.”
Aside from the point that these events should chastise us (“us” being Christians in the United States, in this case) in our use of the terms “persecution” and “martyrdom” when it comes to any difficulty we might face, I want to raise a a few questions about how we talk about these horrifying atrocities. None of these questions is meant to minimize the matter of martyrdom or in any way to diminish the terrifying realities faced by so many even as we speak.
- How can we talk about martyrdom while still acknowledging that non-Christians are suffering many of these same abuses for other reasons?
- How should we talk about non-Christians who are persecuted for religious reasons?
- How should we represent the persecutors?
- In the case that the persecutors are claiming religious reasons for their actions (e.g., ISIS/ISIL), how should we represent their religious claims? How should we represent the diverse religious tradition within which they stand, one in which many adherents find religious persecution repulsive and inconsistent with their beliefs?
- What are the most meaningful ways in which Christians can stand with the martyrs? Is prayer the most meaningful way?
- How has the Christian tradition usually spoken in the present tense, but third person, about martyrdom? What examples do we have of martyrs’ contemporaries speaking about martyrdom? And what lessons can we draw from those examples? Does anyone know of a project or compendium that has brought examples together? If not, someone should get to work on that. We could all use it.