Archbishop Romero and the Egyptian Coptic Christians killed by the Islamic State in Libya last month, who have been promptly recognized as martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church, illustrate both the power and the provocation of the New Martyrs.
Originally used in the Eastern Orthodox Church to describe martyrs killed by heretical Christian rulers, the term “New Martyrs” has come to denote Christians who have succumbed under a whole host of situations of martyrdom, including the Spanish Civil War, the Mexican “Cristero” Wars, the victims of Nazism and Fascism, persecution under Communist regimes, and countless smaller groupings—e.g., the so-called “martyrs of charity,” “martyrs of creation,” etc.
Our age is, of course, not the first time new notions of martyrdom have arisen. The Cambrai Homily from the 7th-century talks about “red,” “white,” and “green” martyrdom in the Irish church of the time, in part because the original notion of martyrdom—“red martyrdom,” denoting a violent, bloody death—had become somewhat rare in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Other ways of giving up your life for God had to be recognized, including the strict asceticism of desert hermits (“white martyrdom”) and the “green martyrdom” of secluding to the forest to a primitive life of prayer. (Is this not what Archbishop Romero preached when he said, in a passage quoted by Pope Francis in January, that “offering of one’s life does not only occur when one is killed for the faith: to give one’s life and to have this spirit of martyrdom means that one is faithful to one’s obligations, to prayer ...”?)
The New Martyrs of our day do not suffer merely a symbolic martyrdom. Their deaths constitute, indeed, true “red martyrdom”—albeit, conditioned to the specifics of their particular time and place. Yet, the departure from the idealized concept of martyrdom can seem jarring. Consider the elements of martyrdom in the Catholic Church: (1) a cruel or violent death; (2) freely accepted by the victim; (3) imposed out of hatred of the faith. Woestman, Canonization: Theology, History, Process 143 (St. Paul University, 2002). A prominent canon lawyer recently argued that Archbishop Romero did not satisfy the “freely accepted” prong because he was not given an ultimatum with a chance to flee (the argument was based on an incomplete understanding of the facts). The same reasoning would apply to the 21 Coptic martyrs, because ISIS did not put them to a choice of electing to die for Christ: it simply massacred them en masse. (Additionally, it is tricky to say ISIS is targeting Christians when it also kills pluralistic Charlie Hebdo, and hurls suspected homosexuals from skyscrapers.) It is a frequently recurring circumstance for the New Martyrs.
Both Romero and the Coptic martyrs have something else in common that ultimate saves us from small-minded thinking about what a martyr is: they present us with a searing vision of martyrdom that is hard to belittle. Romero was killed saying Mass. He is one of only three bishops in history to be killed in church (the other two were quickly canonized), and the only one to be killed at the altar. This single fact was the one most often cited by Pope John Paul and has undoubtedly bolstered Romero’s beatification cause. As for the Coptic martyrs, while the number of beheaded Christians are legion, the power of a YouTube decapitation meant immediate dissemination throughout the Christian world and universal horror at the barbarity of the crimes, together with a resounding judgment that the victims were indeed martyrs. In short, we are dealing with two epic icons of martyrdom.
Recently, in scholarship I greatly admire, Dr. Todd M. Johnson of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary proposed to replace the Canon Law definition cited above with this new definition of martyrs: “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Clearly, this new and more expansive definition would comfortably fit Archbishop Romero and the 21 Egyptian Coptic Martyrs, and perhaps many other twists and turns in the nature of martyrdom in the topsy-turvy future history of the world. Nevertheless, I for one am opposed to changing the definition and prefer to maintain the traditional formula. This is because, in my view, martyrdom has not changed. What has changed are the methodologies of the persecutors, the state of the art of the machinery of death. While we should recognize that the traditional definition of martyrdom needs to breathe, we should keep it in place, assured of the consistency and continuity of Christian witness.
It is notable that both Archbishop Romero and the Coptic Martyrs were quickly acknowledged as such across denominational lines. We recognize martyrdom when we see it.
Romero and the Peruvian martyrs
Romero and the Peruvian martyrs