Monday, September 9, 2013

How should we count martyrs?

How one defines a word can sometimes make a big difference. It can also make a difference how one interprets that definition.

The September issue of Christianity Today contains a short article by Sarah Eekhoff Zyistra about a controversy in Christian circles over the word martyr. A group called Jubilee Campaign issued a report that Christian martyrs numbered approximately 7,000 last year, including nearly 1,000 in Nigeria alone, where Muslims have been actively persecuting Christians. Another group, Open Door, says there were 1,200 Christian martyrs in the world in 2012. Then the Vatican put the number at closer to 100,000.

The difference seems to have less to do with how many people were killed last year than with how many of those who were killed qualify as martyrs.The Oxford American Dictionary I have before me gives three definitions for the word: 1) a person who suffers death rather than give up religious faith. 2) one who undergoes death or great suffering in support of a belief or cause or principles. 3) one who suffers greatly. Each succeeding definition adds significantly to the number of people who qualify as martyrs. The third definition makes most of us a martyr at one time or another in our lives.

The Christian church has historically followed the first of these definitions, or something close to it. This definition suggests that death, for a martyr, is a matter of choice. Martyrs are those who would rather die than denounce their beliefs. Someone who dies when terrorists bomb a church is not necessarily a martyr, by this understanding of the term.

The word itself comes from the Greek word martus, meaning witness. This, too, has historically been a part of the Christian understanding of martyr. A martyr is someone slain while actively witnessing for the faith. This limits even more the number of those who can be considered martyrs.

So why does it matter? Isn't one person's death as much a loss as another's? Nik Ripken, a global strategist with the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board, is quoted in the Christianity Today article as saying that counting too many Christian deaths as martyrdoms ta
kes away from the deaths of those who actually were actively witnessing to the faith. "That reduces (their) story," he said.

Yet Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, argues that a strict definition of the term "limits the scope of the problem." Obviously 100,000 deaths suggests a much bigger problem than 1,200 deaths.

It's an interesting question. As someone who values words, I tend to side more with Ripken on this. The word martyr should be more than just a synonym for victim.

Not every soldier who dies in combat is a hero. Not every black person killed by a white person is the victim of a hate crime. Not every Christian killed by a Muslim is a martyr.

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