On the Politics of Martyrdom
On the 26th of July, 2016, two Islamic State terrorists entered the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy and cut the throat of Fr. Jacques Hamel while he was saying Mass. The terrorists were then killed by law enforcement officials. Paul Vallely, a New York Times op-ed writer, taking advantage of the editorial cheek one has come to expect of the Times when it is dealing with Christianity, wrote a piece in response titled, "Leave 'Martyrdom' to the Jihadists," noting that
Father Hamel may be a martyr in the eyes of the church, but his attackers are also martyrs in the eyes of jihadists. There is of course, an egregious false equivalence between the two cases: One man is a pure victim, while the others were killers who contrived to die at the hands of French law enforcers.
The point to which he is leading is, "Reciprocal talk of martyrdom is unhelpful. The impulse to canonize Father Hamel, however sincere and well intentioned, feeds the idea of retaliation—our martyr for yours—that gives jihadists the war of religions they seek."
Behind this patronizing prescription is the reduction of martyrdom to politics, a tool of emotive propaganda, and a recommendation that the term shouldn't be used because it is inflammatory. Among Christians, however, whether someone is a martyr is simply a question of fact about the conditions of death and the killer's motive—whether the Christian was, in the words of the Apocalypse, "slain for the Word of God and the witness [martyrian] they had borne"—quite apart from how anyone might feel about it, much less its political implications. One might note that this biblical reference is from a passage that refers to God's final war on earth against his enemies:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?" They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Rev. 6:9–11)
Now, whether or not the Catholic Church determines that Fr. Hamel officially qualifies as a martyr because he "voluntarily endured or tolerated death on account of the Faith of Christ," among Christians, those who have given up their lives to enemies of the faith in testimony to it are called martyrs (testifiers) because that is what such people have, from our beginnings, been called, and not merely because someone has chosen to call them that to achieve or avoid some practical end.
If Professor Vallely wants us to put a stopper in it because calling a martyr a martyr will make someone angry and give jihadists "the war of religions they seek," he is advising that the best way to face reality in this case is to evade it by forbearing to give a thing its historically appropriate name—an Orwellian practice marking cultures where what is politically correct is precisely what is not correct in fact—what the Russians used to joke about, and probably still do, when discussing Pravda ("The Truth"), their own equivalent of another party organ published in New York.
Those oriented to think in these terms also repel an understanding that Muslims, whether militaristic jihadists or not, share with Christians: that true and false religion are factors of cosmic reality at war to the death, whether or not one believes there is a divine call to take up arms here and now. •
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.