Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Martyrdom Being the Call of a Few or All: Thinking Baptism, Discipleship, and Witness

I have come across the following attitude enough to wonder where it stems from: that martyrdom is the calling of a few, or that God only calls a select few of the church to be martyrs.

Of course, as a descriptive statement, this is undeniably true. But in the way it is used rhetorically in arguments, it often has the force of a prescriptive statement, that is, most Christians are not called to be martyrs regardless of the situation.

If that is the case, or the claim being made, I confess myself hugely perplexed. Is this a theology of martyrdom that has been worked out over centuries, about which I am simply ignorant? Is it an idiosyncratic position merely randomly on offer? Is it purely a rhetorical ploy with little thought behind it?

Obviously, any discussion of martyrdom by unthreatened academics or unpersecuted church people is bound to be cheap, or at least contained within a discourse little touched by the actual realities in question. Any talk of martyrdom, therefore, must be filled from top to bottom by absolute humility before the awful fact that thousands upon thousands of Christian believers have suffered and died for the faith.

That said, I cannot imagine a theologically defensible conception of martyrdom that would say only some Christians ought to be prepared to give their lives for the faith. Rather, every baptized believer is called to undivided allegiance and faithfulness to Christ all the way to death. If every baptized believer is a disciple, and every disciple is called both to take up the cross and to be a peaceable witness (martyr) to the crucified One, what would it mean to say that, given the threat of death for the sake of Christ, only some are called to give their lives willingly? Would this imply that sometimes self-defense for the sake of Christ, or defense of other potential martyrs, is a faithful response? What would such a situation be? It certainly cannot be to save women and children, for not only are martyrs historically more often women than men, but from the beginning the church's witness is that having children is no safeguard against suffering for the faith.

To make these observations or to ask these questions is, again, no assumption that martyrdom is easy, simple, or an abstract affair; but it is to question the bourgeois establishment mentality that so characterizes mainline theological academic discourse as well as the plethora of Americans filling megachurch pews. To put it as starkly as possible: To be baptized into the death and resurrection of the crucified One is to be willing, if the time comes, to die on his behalf as a witness to his way.

However much we fail, however much we flail and quail on such a path, however much we fall -- which many have done before us and which we ineluctably will also -- before such a mighty call, that is the call. Either we follow Christ to the cross, or not at all.

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