Martyrdom, Wet and Dry

Despite the relatively tepid media interest in the persecution of Christians, the recent high-visibility deaths of people guilty only of loyalty to Christ has raised our awareness of the stakes for Christians in different areas of the world. Those stakes are higher when the persecution takes the form of the bloody, “wet” martyrdom inflicted by ISIS or Boko Haram – and correspondingly lower for the kind of “dry” martyrdom currently building up steam in the West.

In either form, it is peculiarly painful to see our co-religionists mischaracterized by their persecutors and sometimes also by our own media. Here at home, it is particularly galling to see character assassination added to the increasingly uncomfortable legal and social position of those who have lost jobs and businesses – and been hit with large fines – for their faithfulness.

In the United States, although Obamacare’s encroachments on religious liberty roused awareness of a large change in the scale of the threat, the principal driver of the assault on our religious freedom right now is same-sex marriage.

Of course, same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms, a fantasy that cannot be conjured into actual existence by any number of state laws or court opinions, because it is a meaningless concept. It redefines marriage out of existence in order to accommodate those who are not attracted to its real nature, but to certain trappings and legal privileges.

What makes this so critical in the secular sphere are the innocent casualties, the children, whose need for mothers and fathers who can embrace them within a stable union, a true marriage, has already been abused by widespread divorce and cohabitation, not to mention abortion and contraception.

Our opponents, however, who nowadays are legion and increasingly call upon the coercive power of government to intimidate and silence people, assail those upholding the traditional understanding of marriage as mean-spirited, vindictive hate-mongers. On the visceral level, for example, the treatment of the Indiana pizza owners who expressed opposition to same-sex marriage draws from me the schoolyard protest, “It’s not fair!” And in fact “It’s not fair!” is our implicit witness to a pre-existing, God-given standard of fairness, a right judgment of our fallen world, where often enough things are far from fair.

“The English and Welsh Martyrs” by Daphne Pollen, 1970
“The English and Welsh Martyrs” by Daphne Pollen, 1970

My secondary reaction is concern that, in addition to hampering the defense of marriage and of religious freedom in the public square, such piling on prevents people from understanding that Christians – whose reputations, integrity, and witness are under attack – are in fact dry martyrs. How can the blood (or in this case, the reputation and livelihood) of the martyrs be the seed of the Church if the people they are supposed to convert don’t know they are martyrs, because they are vilified and misrepresented?

Looking back over the span of history at Christian martyrs in a wide variety of times and settings, however, I realize two things. First, Christians who gave their lives for their faith were usually similarly misrepresented by their persecutors, who frequently twisted their motives and manufactured false charges, as well as manipulating their “crimes” against the state into something that sounded quite different from the Good News of salvation.

Sometimes the lies and misrepresentation were cynical propaganda or setup jobs designed to turn people against them. At other times, however, the misrepresentation occurred because, from the state’s point of view, the Christians were in fact guilty of disloyalty to the state, impiety, and upending the existing social order. That was true of ancient Rome, it was for the most part true of Elizabethan England (where the Spanish Armada reinforced people’s perceptions of Catholics as traitors), of Mexico in the early twentieth century, and of many other places as well.

In the Muslim territories under the control of terrorist groups that don’t really distinguish between religion and government, the case is somewhat different. There ISIS and others are actually putting people to death for their Christian beliefs – or technically, for their failure to give up those beliefs to convert to Islam.

The second thing to understand about the current situation is that however important it may be to present our beliefs truthfully and “give the reason for the hope that is in you,” the spiritual efficacy of any kind of martyrdom is, like most effects of grace, generally hidden, not easily traceable in connect-the-dots form. What was the influence of the martyrdoms of Campion and the other Elizabethans hanged, drawn, and quartered on Tyburn for their faith?

In the short or medium term, it is hard to discern spectacular results – certainly not conversion on a mass scale. But in the great economy of God, who knows? Like most of our less dramatic works of virtue or cooperation with grace, the results are not necessarily apparent to us this side of heaven. Occasionally we are given the consolation of seeing them. In any case, we know that those effects are there, as surely as we know that God is there.

Ellen Wilson Fielding is Senior Editor of the Human Life Review and lives in Maryland.