We live in an era of new martyrs and new questions about the nature of martyrdom. In Libya, in mid-February, the windswept beach was a scene befitting a tourist poster—except for the line of kneeling men in orange suits and their anonymous executioners wrapped in black: 21 Coptic Christians marched to their deaths. These were simple workingmen who died with “Jesus” on their lips, according to accounts that sprang up on the Internet.
The tale of the murdered American James Foley has undergone a few revisions since the dreadful news of his execution—and the gruesome video that documented it—was released by those who had for years held him captive. The story of the death of Mr. Foley, first depicted as a devout, courageous Catholic graduate of Marquette University who kept the faith to the end, became muddled by the surprising revelation that at the last he may have yielded to his captors’ coercive demands to convert.
It probably surprised the people of El Salvador, who long ago informally canonized Óscar Romero, that it took the Vatican more than two decades to confirm his martyrdom. But in his death, as in his life, Romero was swept up in larger political and ideological forces. Within the Curia his cause had been “blocked,” and his martyrdom denied.
He could not be a true Catholic martyr, some argued; he was merely the victim of a political assassination. He preached agitation, not the Gospel, others charged.
According to church tradition, martyrdom cannot be declared unless the victim was targeted out of hatred for the church and refused an opportunity to renounce his or her faith. That would seem to put a natural limit on the number of people who may be considered martyrs, even as during these troubled times, according to some accounts, thousands of Christians die each year because of the simple fact of their faith. Indeed, that understanding of martyrdom has come to appear sadly deficient. How else, if not as martyrdom, is one to describe, for instance, the self-sacrifice of a Maximilian Kolbe? In Auschwitz, Father Kolbe offered his life in exchange for that of another Polish prisoner when Nazi soldiers came looking for someone to murder in a reprisal execution.
This year, the readings for the Sunday before the 35th anniversary of Óscar Romero’s martyrdom, March 24, included the Gospel verse the archbishop put to such eloquent and prescient use in his last homily: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Óscar Romero said then: let them take my life, I offer it up freely; he would be raised up in his people. He had already given over his life on behalf of the campesinos, catechists, union organizers and academics of El Salvador and, yes, even on behalf of the rebels and landholders and soldiers, too. In this instance, the blood of the martyr is not just the seed of the church but of justice.
If we might recover the original meaning of the word—that is, to understand martyrs as witnesses to their faith—and join to it Kolbe’s and Romero’s model of self-offering, especially on behalf of others, we could become more generous in our understanding of martyrdom. Surely just as important as the way martyrs died is how they lived, the witness they gave to their faith by their lives (understanding that even our saints are far from perfect beings).
Whether James Foley died a Catholic martyr, saying the name of Jesus, or murmuring a forced prayer to Allah, he died true to his vocation as a journalist, a commitment that grew from his Catholic upbringing: to be, like Óscar Romero, a voice for the voiceless, to tell the stories of the ignored to the indifferent, that they might be shaken from their indolence.
And these 21 men from Egypt, they did not go to Libya and to their deaths because of their faith, but because of their families. Did they understand the danger they were exposing themselves to in the chaos of Libya? It was a risk they considered worth accepting; they had been offering themselves up long before they reached that beach by the Mediterranean.
Without the church’s demand for justice and human dignity, Romero would not have been a threat that required stamping out. Indeed, Óscar Romero was killed out of hatred of the faith, dying a martyr’s death—not because he was shot through the heart while saying Mass, but because he dared to make real the Gospel demands for dignity and justice on behalf of the defenseless and marginalized in El Salvador.
And while some may fret over liberation theology in discerning the nature of Romero’s martyrdom, the liberation that he offered was meant for both oppressed and oppressor, a gift for all. It was the Beatitudes, not revolution, that compelled him.