What is the link between martyrs of today and martyrs of the early church?
Readers of America may be aware that Pope Francis recently added a fourth path to sainthood: freely choosing to give one’s life for others in situations they know will lead to their certain death. This expansion of the path to canonization is welcome news in the church because it acknowledges that sainthood is something to which all Christians are called and broadens the categories for entry into the church’s official canon of saints and blessed. Anyone pleased with this turn of events will also be grateful for this new volume from John Thiede, S.J., which highlights one particular group of holy women and men in the church: martyrs.
Part of what makes Thiede’s work so valuable is that he calls to the reader’s attention the crucial link between martyrs of today and martyrs of the early church. Thiede reminds the reader that the “proto-martyr” is Jesus himself, and that all subsequent Christian martyrs have given their lives with one eye on the cross. He concentrates particularly on the best-known martyrs of El Salvador: Rutilio Grande, S.J., Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four U.S. “churchwomen” and the six Jesuits and their two lay companions murdered at the University of Central America.
The book is broken into three parts. First, Thiede lays the groundwork, both in the ecclesial sense and in the geographical setting of Latin America. Second, Thiede recounts—albeit briefly—some of the biographical information of the martyrs. Third, Thiede devotes his final two chapters to the theology of Jon Sobrino, S.J.
What comes through clearly as the thesis of this text is a call for “an expanded definition of martyrdom in the twenty-first century.” One of Thiede’s most helpful contributions is his insistence that the modern Salvadoran martyrs listed above are connected in a real way to the first Christian martyrs such as Stephen and Polycarp. The experience of reading about the early martyrs and the contemporary martyrs side by side in this text is like paging through an heirloom family photo album while simultaneously scrolling through a social media feed filled with snapshots of family and friends: times have changed, but the expressions of love and fidelity have remained the same.
The greatest strength of Thiede’s book from a theological perspective is the final two chapters, where he mines three of Jon Sobrino’s best-known volumes: Christology at the Crossroads (1978), Jesus the Liberator (1993) and Christ the Liberator (2001). The first text was written before the U.C.A. assassinations of Nov. 16, 1989, while Sobrino wrote the latter two after that infamous day. Thiede traces clearly the intellectual development of Sobrino (the majority of whose community was executed while he was lecturing out of the country) on the topic of martyrdom.
Thiede regards Sobrino’s concept of “Jesuanic martyrs” to be especially helpful in conceiving this new, broader definition of martyrdom. In Sobrino’s work, a Jesuanic martyr is “one who dies like Jesus, at the hands of some hostile force.” Thiede makes a convincing argument that these are precisely the models that Christians need to follow in the 21st-century church and does an admirable job of scouring Sobrino’s work and determining what is most valuable for this exposition of Christian martyrdom.
Some theologians might quibble with Thiede’s argument that there is a parallel between “anonymous martyrs” (those killed as part of a great number) and Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian,” someone who is actually not a baptized Christian. Many may agree with Thiede’s contention that it would be difficult to consider non-Christians who die for matters of justice to be considered Christian martyrs; however, among the more than 75,000 Salvadorans killed in their civil war, many were Christians. They might be anonymous in the sense that history has forgotten their names, but they are not anonymous Christians. Even if we do not recall their names, we should not cease cherishing their witness. I found myself in disagreement with Thiede’s argument that pushing the idea of anonymous martyrs “might dilute the meaning of the term.” Having attended the School of the Americas Protest in Fort Benning, Ga., I have often been moved to hear the intonation, “1-year-old girl: Presente!” Such a cry to God cannot dilute the meaning of martyrdom.
These points aside, the text is a helpful exploration of martyrdom in the church today. It is also much needed in the United States, where martyrdom is not something that we deal with very often from firsthand experience. Thiede’s study will greatly benefit undergrads in theology courses, as well as parish groups that wish to learn more about the seed from which our church grows.