This is not a pleasant blog for children and the faint of heart. It is about martyrdom.
Last week’s observance of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist reminded me of this unsettling subject. The prospect of having one’s head chopped off and presented to one’s enemies on a silver platter tends to focus the mind.
In days past, martyrdom came in many truly unpleasant forms: eaten by lions, burned at the stake, skinned alive, roasted over a bed of coals, the aforementioned beheading and, of course crucifixion. More recently, the gas chambers of the Nazis made martyrs in huge numbers.
We tend to think of these things as happening long ago and are grateful that today’s martyrdom is softer: social marginalization, being forced to pay taxes to fund abortions, having limitations on proclaiming our faith in public, perhaps being jailed for proclaiming Biblical truths.
Those softer forms of martyrdom do cause suffering. But in today’s world, plain old martyrdom by violent, painful death really isn’t too far away:
The serious violations of the right to freedom of religion in general and the recent continuing discrimination and systematic attacks inflicted on some Christian communities in particular, deeply concern the Holy See and many democratic Governments whose population embrace various religious and cultural traditions. Credible research has reached the shocking conclusion that an estimate of more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year. Other Christians and other believers are subjected to forced displacement, to the destruction of their places of worship, to rape and to the abduction of their leaders -as it recently happened in the case of Bishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji, in Aleppo (Syria). — Statement by His Excellency Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations, in Geneva 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue with High Commissioner — Geneva, May 27, 2013
To put 100,000 deaths in perspective, that is more than 273 a day – more than 11 an hour. A Christian is killed for our faith every five-and-a-half minutes. (No, abortions are not included in these figures.)
And while our ancestors has some especially nasty ways of killing people, today’s persecutors of Christ are equally imaginative: shooting, hanging, stabbing, stoning, drowning, burning alive, hacking with machetes, gassing….you get the picture.
In North America, we worry that our freedom to practice our faith in the public square is being reduced. But we often see this as an intellectual debate about diversity, tolerance and fairness. As Christians learn daily in other parts of the world, it is about the possibility of being chained to a truck and dragged along a gravel road until dead.
We shall not lose faith, nor shall we be afraid. But we must pray, convert ourselves so we can convert others and stand ready to defend the truth. I expect some of us will be called to the ultimate sacrifice.