The Martyr paradigm emerged and thrived in the early centuries – between the time of Christ’s death and the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity as the official state religion. While only a few dedicated Christians are recognized as martyrs, it was an era in which it was dangerously easy to become one. Christians suffered terribly under the Roman emperors Nero, Decius and Diocletian. Often they were pitted against wild dogs and lions in the amphitheaters, savaged while Roman citizens cheered for their demise. While this sort of persecution wasn’t welcomed by the Christians, it was seen as an element in a larger contextual framework. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake,” the Beatitudes read, coupled with an eschatological understanding that the end was near, Christians tended to err on the side of loyalty to Jesus.
Often, classical era martyrs were treated as heroes by other Christians, certainly they were written about as such to the point where Cunningham, in his book The Catholic Heritage, postulates that the Church was born from the blood of the martyrs.
…but what about contemporary martyrs? Is there such a thing?
I think it’s easy, for most, to forget that Jesus was not simply a religious figure – he was a political figure as well; one which, on the books, was put to death for both political purposes and political reasons. Likewise, the martyrs weren’t sacrificed because they were Christians, no, they were murdered because they refused to buy lock, stock and barrel into the Roman Empire; they refused required civic duties such as worshiping the emperors as gods and serving in the Roman Legion. From this understanding a parallel can be drawn between classic martyrs and contemporary ones – yes, they exist and in far greater number than there ever were in ancient time.
Today, our martyrs are the victims of corporate greed and the American political machine – which is easily synonymous with the Roman Empire. Our new martyrs are the victims of:
Racism, sexism, nuclear armament, area bombing, unceasing oil consumption, land grabs, conflict minerals, blood diamonds, winner take all capitalism, workplace exploitation, rising college tuitions and student debts, obscenely expensive and hard to get health care, the pharmaceutical industry, the military complexes, carcinogens in our food, unclean drinking water, drones, abortions, poorly funded inner-city schools, America’s piss poor safety net, endless consumerism and individual gluttony.
Our martyrs show themselves to us as the homeless, the AIDS infected, the cancer ridden, the drug dealers, the illiterate, the prostitutes, the pregnant teens, the prisoners of war, Hamas, dead Palestinian children, the staggering 60% incarceration rate of Black American men, and the list goes endlessly one when considering the global scale. The martyr paradigm hasn’t changed – it’s the same as it was in the classical era – we’ve simply stopped listening, looking, and caring. Because, hell, a heroin junkie couldn’t ever be a martyr.
Our modern martyrs show that Christ is still to be found among and within society’s lowest common denominator – and they do not need to be Christian or even religions, only that they are they viewed means to the end of the Global Market. Being Catholic – being CHRISTIAN – means being catholic in the little c sense: Universal. Our martyrs emphasize the importance for Works of Mercy; if society insists that the poor suffer for their comfort and greed then it is Christian duty to comfort the afflicted. Being a Christian is the response to and acceptance of a call to justice. It is the active pursuit of a social equilibrium where each of us has what we need – NOT what we want, especially if it’s at the expense of another – thus drastically reducing and eventually eliminating our materialist and consumeristic culture.