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THE CHRISTIAN MARTYR: a witness without compare

By Rt Revd. Rino Fisichella

(Translated into English by Edwin Robertson)

In the presence of a martyr there is no neutral position. His earnestness of
life and the radicalness of his faith imply, when a choice that demands sc
many things as the one to follow Christ is made, that for him to commit
himself is an act of freedom without comparison. Considering this we can
truly say that those who have chosen to follow Christ cannot think that
martyrdom has nothing to do with them; it is here that we find "the serious
matter" of life, which challenges us and puts us before a decision. One of the
fundamental traits, which make up the Christian martyr and make him
topical even today as a perfect witness, is the boundless freedom, which he
expresses with his death. Life is not taken from the martyr; the martyr makes
a gift
of his life. It is this theme that defines the huge difference between the
Christian martyr and other forms of martyrdom and show the special
character of his Christian, witness. Although he is sentenced to death, the
martyr, in a paradoxical way, chooses to die. His active choice of death
coincides with freeing himself from a life that would be meaningless apart
from this perspective. The truth of his life and the truth of the gospel come
together in a synthesis such that the martyr cannot conceive of himself in
any other way. Hence, he becomes a witness to the gospel by discovering in
this way the ultimate truth of his own existence. Following the example of
Christ who gave up his life in order to take it up again, the martyr offers
himself in the certainty that he will again have a life of communion with the
Lord. First of all the Christian martyr is a sign of love. His strength lies in
the awareness that since Christ overcame death, those, also, who entrust
themselves to him will reign with him forever. We can see why iconography
does not represent the martyr either with a laurel, the sign of glory, or with
an olive branch, the sign of peace, but with a palm, the sign of perennial
victory over the death. This is the true meaning of martyrdom, which allows
us to understand the eternal value of the martyr's witness.

Those who die out of love for Christ and for faith in him on behalf of the
Church are called "martyrs" in the fullest sense. On the other hand, we
reserve the name "heroes" for those who give their lives for an ideal or for
the human solidarity which makes them offer the supreme gift of
themselves. By restricting the term "martyr" only to those who believe in
Christ, nothing is taken away from these heroes. Their death is not diminished or devoid of its value and meaning. What we want to affirm,
rather, is the specific nature of our Christian identity by reclaiming the first
meaning of the term that expressed, in martyrdom for the sake of following
Christ, the ultimate witness to faith in him.

At this point it is unavoidable to ask the question of different forms of
martyrdom present in other religions. The significant historical moment in
which we live demands a close examination of the form martyrdom takes in
Islam. Some months ago there was a discussion between Saudi Arabia and
Iraq on the notion of "martyr". The chahid is of great value to both, the
Sunni world and the Shi'ite world. Each person who gives proof of
renouncing earthly life for the glory of Allah, engages in Jihad and dies in it,
gains Paradise and is considered a "martyr" by the Koran. According to the
Command Council of the Iraqi Revolution it is affirmed that, "Each Iraqi,
whether Arab or Muslim, or a warrior in the world, who is killed in a suicide
mission either against States engaging in barbaric aggression with Iraq or
against the interests of these States, will be considered a martyr."

A quick glance at these conditions will make abundantly clear the
differences when a comparison is made with the features of martyrdom we
have outlined. First of all, the main feature is that behind this concept of
martyrdom there is hidden the intention of death for other people. This is a
complete contrast with the Christian notion. In the Christian notion the
martyr meets death, but he lives it himself as being condemned for the truth
of his faith. He puts himself in an attitude of unconditional love that invests
his entire person, but which stops at himself, and has the result of desiring to
be a disciple in a calling not so much to martyrdom but to the faith for w/which
a martyr offers himself. Contrary to this, the Islamic concept creates a
situation of violence and the death not only of one's self but of others.
Indeed one's death is the source of death for others and this without any
concern that among one's victims there may also be innocent people. What
guides such a person's intention is the imposition of his project on others.
Freedom is totally absent from such an act, because it allows no space for
the decision making of others. And there is a second difference. The
Christian martyr is always guided by love and by forgiveness towards those
who condemn him, while at the basis for the Islamic hero there is an act of
violence towards those who do not share the same belief. In short, to die for
the holy war manifests, on one side, the faithfulness to an ideal and, on the
other, makes obvious, without doubt, a lack of love. Violence can never be a
source of love; it is the source for rivalry, hate and revenge. Behaving like this, me one who gives himself to death, presents himself as me decisive
instrument for achieving the goal. It is easy to detect at the root of such a
gesture a deep sense of a search for heroism and, therefore, a veiled sense of
narcissism, which raises this person above others with a pride {hybris} that
can only wound, but never involves others nor draws them with it. It is our
opinion, therefore, that this cannot be defined as martyrdom. What is
presented here, in fact, is not a witness, but the display of a subject who puts
himself at the service of an ideology of violence, which cannot be compared
or confused with any other expression of devotion, solidarity and love.