In The Sunday Age last year, Neil Jillett
suggested that Jesus suffered from a martyr complex, describing Him as "a
33-year-old masochist whose suicidal impulse was so strong that he courted
an agonizing death". A curious claim, given Christ's profound dread and
inner turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane as He contemplated His fate . But
it serves to illustrate that the concept of martyrdom has acquired some
negative connotations, whether deservedly or not.
In seeking to understand martyrdom, it
may be helpful to distinguish between militant mass murderers on the one
hand, and non-violent men and women of faith who are put to death by
authorities or enemies hell-bent on trying to extinguish their faith.
For instance, it would seem less than
fair to put Australian missionary martyr Graham Staines and his two young
sons in the same boat as the brutal killers of Bali or the Middle East. The
same would apply to millions of Christian martyrs down the centuries, from
Polycarp of Smyrna to Oscar Romero in El Salvador, from John Hus in Prague
to John and Betty Stam in China, from Savonarola in Florence to Stan Dale in
Irian Jaya, from Janani Luwum in Uganda to the Auca Five in Ecuador.
It must be conceded that Christianity, in
some of its more imperfect institutional manifestations, has not always
displayed the true spirit of the martyrs. The instigators of the Crusades,
and the perpetrators of the Inquisitions, for example, manifestly failed to
follow the non-violent example of the Founder of the faith they purported to
Their misguided excesses, however, should
not detract from the recognition and admiration due to the many who have
chosen the Christ-like path of sacrificial compassion in life, and in some
cases, ultimate self-giving commitment in death.
The vast contrast between the spirit and
the motives of true martyrs such as these on the one hand, and of suicide
killers on the other, is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in the dying
words of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who prayed for his killers as
he was being stoned to death, "Lay not this sin to their charge". In this,
Stephen was emulating Christ, who prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive
them, for they know not what they do."
These were the words quoted by Graham
Staines' widow Gladys, when she welcomed the leaders of a multi-faith
pilgrimage that had travelled across India to her missionary compound, in a
demonstration of unity, solidarity and inter-faith co-operation in the wake
of the Orissa atrocity.
In a profoundly moving encounter, Mrs.
Staines greeted the pilgrims as her brothers and sisters, and told them that
the same Jesus who prayed for His executioners had given her the strength to
honestly forgive those who had burnt to death her husband and two young
And Gladys Staines has remained in India
to carry on the work among lepers and outcasts to which her husband had
devoted 34 years of his life.
The life and death of Graham Staines, and
the continuing faithful ministry of his widow, have profoundly affected many
people in India and beyond - people who have seen horrific evil repaid with
gentle good, hatred repaid with forgiveness, and darkness penetrated by true
The first chapter of John's Gospel
describes Jesus as the Light who came into the world to illuminate
humankind, and to rescue us from the forces of darkness. The history of
Christian martyrdom over the last two millennia shows these dark forces (in
various manifestations) have been prepared to go to extreme and brutal
lengths, to try to thwart God's redemptive intent.
The earliest attempt was the slaughter of
the innocents ordered by King Herod, who sought to destroy the infant
Christ. Three decades later, religious and political forces conspired to
bring about Christ's execution. Their apparent success proved short-lived,
and supremely counter-productive.
In the years that followed, murderous
tyrants like Nero and Caligula initiated wave upon wave of persecution and
attempted extermination of Christ's followers, and that persecution
continues to this day in many parts of the world. It's an astonishing
statistic that more Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in the
previous 19 combined.
The most remarkable thing about this
persecution, of course, is that it has comprehensively failed to achieve its
objective. It has spectacularly backfired. The Carthaginian church father
Tertullian wrote: "Our numbers increase, as often as you cut us down: the
blood of Christians is the seed." This has been traditionally rendered as:
"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."
And so it has proved to be ever since. It
is the Christian belief that by virtue of His conquest of death, the risen
Christ inspires and empowers His followers (such as Graham Staines) to live
sacrificial lives of service to others, and if necessary, to die a
sacrificial death, quietly confident in the expectation that having shared
in Christ's death, they will also share in His resurrection, as will all who
put their trust in Him.
Charles Wesley wrote of this in his
famous Christmas hymn: "Hail the heaven-born Prince of peace, Hail the Son
of righteousness. Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His
wings. Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die; born to
raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Hark the herald
angels sing, Glory to the new-born King."
* Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist. Click here
for links to further articles by him.
December 24th, 2002