The assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike has sparked a whirlwind of threats from Tehran, including a promise from one of his daughters to avenge his “martyrdom”. Furthermore, he is to be buried at a “martyrs’ cemetery”. This appears to me to be a monumental redefinition of "martyrdom".
I grew up on stories from behind the so-called “Iron Curtain” of Soviet Communism. Stories of brave yet terrified Christians being hunted down, imprisoned and tortured to death simply because they refused to deny their love for Jesus. In my naive teenager way, I offered my allegiance to Jesus whatever the cost—whilst wondering in which bleak Russian prison I would be forced to make my last courageous stand for him. Since that time stories of torture and martyrdom have continued to emerge from other equally repressive regimes, where women, children and adult men alike have had their lives torn from them by murderous mobs or heartless tyrants because they likewise could not be persuaded out of their devotion to Jesus. On Easter Sunday 2019 several bombs were detonated in terror attacks against churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, making 259 including many children into martyrs that day, whilst wounding hundreds of others.
Like so many words, martyrdom has been scaled down by overuse. A person may now be said to be “acting the martyr” because they had to do something unpleasant and performed the task in a self-righteous kind of way. Merriam Webster offers the following statement as to the origin of the word:
It comes from the Greek word for "witness," the term used for early Christians who were put to death because they would not renounce their faith. (the book of Acts, Jesus refers to his followers as “witnesses.")
This origin is in stark contrast to the death of a military general running a semi secret elite militia to advance the Iranian Revolution, as a result of an attack by a foreign military power. This sounds very much like living by the sword and dying by the sword. Equally, to use the word martyr for someone who destroys their own life and those of others nearby, by exploding a suicide vest, is a gross misuse of the word. The martyrs for whom the term came into existence to describe, were an innumerable crowd of often nameless, faceless, ordinary Christians whose humble lives had been transformed by encountering the extraordinary Jesus. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who became a martyr in AD155 famously stated to the Roman Proconsul,
“Eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
…The proconsul sent his herald out into the arena to announce that Polycarp had confessed to being a Christian. At this, the assembled crowd seethed with uncontrolled fury and called for Polycarp to be burned alive. Quickly, they assembled a pyre, gathering wood from workshops and the public baths. Polycarp removed his clothes and tried to take off his shoes, though his advanced age made it difficult. His guards prepared to nail him to the stake, but he told them calmly, “Leave me as I am, for the one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to remain at the stake unmoved without being secured by nails.” They bound his hands behind him. Polycarp offered a psalm of praise and thanksgiving to God. His captors ignited the wood.
Martyrdom has always been an occupational hazard for the would be disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus did give a clue that things might get tough when he announced, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The cross, likewise, has become denatured and sanitised into Christian rhetoric and lingo. For Jesus and his contemporaries, the cross was a bloody executioner’s device, not a religious icon or an item of jewellery. Today, the cross is easily slipped into religious conversation as shorthand, often without a moment’s thought of its true implications. The cross makes uncompromising demands of the disciple. It is ugly, blood-stained and rough. It is the stand-alone symbol of the extent to which the love of God is prepared to stretch in order to restore humanity into relationship with himself.
Years later, my love for Jesus has not just survived, but deepened and matured (hopefully). I have visited some pretty hectic environments around the world, where my life has been at risk (a little) because of my love for him. Most of the time I live in a beautiful English town a few minutes from the beach. Most of the time, the extent of my “suffering for the gospel” is when someone is upset with me because of my leadership, and says mean things about me. Today, however, I want to pause and honour those who “…did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Revelation 12:11, but also examine to my own devotion to Jesus. What does it mean to me to be a witness, or martyr, for Christ?