Witness Tampering by S. M. Hutchens


Witness Tampering

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 Touchstone senior editor.

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more on martyrdom from the online archives

more from the online archives

22.7—September/October 2009

Science Fictions

on a Random Quantum Fluctuation by Marilyn Prever

32.2—March/April 2019

What Gives?

on Properly Rendering Things to Caesar & to God by Peter J. Leithart

27.2—March/April 2014

Poetry Above Compulsion

Higher Education Should Advance the Glorious Liberty of the Sons of God by Anthony Esolen

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone