What Makes a Martyr a Martyr? For Christians, what makes a martyr a martyr?

As we may remember, on Sunday, December 9, 2007, a young man named Matthew Murray shot a number of people: first very early in the morning in Arvada, Colorado, at a Youth With a Mission Center; then about twelve hours later in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at New Life Church. Two of those shot in Arvada died – Tiffany Johnson and Philip Crouse. Others were wounded. At New Life Church, two also died – Stephanie and Rachael Works, teen-aged sisters. Their father and others were wounded. Matthew Murray, too, died at New Life Church before he could shoot others. A member of the church volunteering that day as a security guard – Jeanne Assam, armed with a pistol – confronted Matthew. She was quoted later: “I knew I was given the assignment to end this…. I give the credit to God.” (New York Times online article, Dec. 11, 2007; by Kirk Johnson and David Frosch.) Jeanne responded with deadly force against Matthew as he continued to shoot, and she critically wounded him. A post-mortem investigation indicated that the wounded Matthew actually died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Further investigation into these incidents led to the conclusion that Matthew Murray had come to a point in his life where, despite being raised in a Christian family, he espoused hatred for Christians. On December 9 he acted on that hate to hurt and kill any Christians he could. For Christians, what makes a martyr a martyr? More particularly, what makes a martyr a martyr as against merely a victim? No diminishment or disrespect of what it means to be a victim, especially of violent action, is intended here. To be a victim of violence is a terrible and unjust experience. No one should have to undergo it. What happened to Tiffany, Philip, Stephanie, and Rachel – and to their families and friends – was terrible and unjust. We lament and grieve their violent deaths at the hand of the very troubled Matthew Murray. Indeed, we lament and grieve as well for Matthew, his family, and his friends. Yet there seems to be a difference between being a martyr and being a victim. We get our English word “martyr” directly from a form of the Greek word martys, meaning “witness.” Written in Greek, the New Testament use of martys generally bears this meaning of “witness.” A martys or witness is a person who has seen or encountered something, and who may then tell others about what he or she has experienced. The early followers of Jesus were witnesses in that they experienced the blessings of Jesus’ life and love and communicated the good news of Jesus to others. Over time in the early church, martys came to refer not only to those who bore witness to Jesus by telling others about him. It especially signified those who bore witness to Jesus by suffering death rather than recanting their faith when persecuted. Many of the first Christians were witnesses also in this suffering sense of martys. They held to their faith in Jesus in the face of death.

However, from our vantage point many years later in a different context, we may ask whether those early church martyrs became martyrs in the suffering sense because they lacked the means to defend themselves against their persecutors? That is, did they die and thus become martyrs only or primarily because they lacked the means to defend themselves when attacked for their faith? Consider it this way. If early Christians had possessed means of defense against persecution and used those means, and if they had thus succeeded in defending themselves by thwarting the persecution, perhaps even killing the persecutors, they would not have died. They would have lived, and they would not have suffered martyrdom as it came to be understood. Even if early Christians had possessed means of defense and employed those means yet still died under persecution, then they would have died not because they stood for their faith but because they failed in defending themselves. If they had succeeded, they would not have died. The persecutors would have been thwarted, perhaps even killed instead. Hence, persecuted Christians would not have died for their faith. They would have lived. They might even have lived by killing “for their faith.” Clearly, many early Christians did die for their faith. They suffered martyrdom. Did they die because they did not have the means to defend themselves? Did they die because they had the means and used them but failed in defending themselves? Or, did they become martyrs because, whether they had the means or not, they refused to defend themselves by any means necessary, including deadly force, against those who despised, feared, hated, persecuted, and killed them? I suggest that this is the truth and the true witness of those early church martyrs. I suggest that, in refusing to defend themselves against persecution by any means necessary, and in professing their faith in Jesus even if it meant suffering and dying for him, they enacted, even embodied, love for God and love for their persecutors, for their enemies, as Jesus himself did on Calvary. Is not this the true pattern, the true taking up, of the cross of Jesus? For Christians, is not this what makes a martyr a martyr and not just another victim of violence? Gregory Strong