The American church seems squeamish about discussing martyrdom. I'm not quite sure why that is, but if I had to guess, I might say that it's a combination of the following reasons:
1. The American church is very comfortable - being that it's in a Christian-majority country with a great deal of wealth and power.
2. This means that as a practical concern, martyrdom for a typical Christian is unlikely for the foreseeable future, and therefore it necessarily needs less discussion.
3. So discussing martyrdom can come off as seemingly extremist or alarmist, where it seems that we're blowing something out of proportion.
But I do believe that we do need to discuss it on occasion. The Bible itself references the topic quite directly. Christ himself says that "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me", and Apostle Paul affirms that "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". But, because of that American squeamishness mentioned earlier, I've had to make a series of scattered posts before I finally got around to this post. So finally, here are the points I wanted to make about martyrdom:
First, we should note that there is a lot of emotions tied up with martyrdom. This is, in many ways, only appropriate. What could be more noble than giving up your life - paying the ultimate price - for a good cause? And what could be a better cause than the call of Christ and his kingdom? But, if we want to flip this around and look at the "squeamish" angle mentioned earlier - what an extreme view! To want to die for something? What might such a person not do for their pet cause? Aren't people under such strong emotions susceptible to irrationality? Are they not dangerous? Isn't the word "martyrs" used by both terrorists and Christians?
All this is true; the sainted martyrs are worthy of our veneration, and we are right to feel a strong emotional response to their sacrifice. But it is equally true that such strong emotions can be misdirected and misused. What we need, therefore, is a calm, cold, calculated, and rational justification for martyrdom, to serve alongside the emotions that it naturally and rightly evokes.
Jesus himself seems to endorse this approach. Consider his parables in Luke 14, where he urges the listeners to consider the cost of becoming his disciple. The examples in his stories are telling: he speaks of estimating the cost, in terms of money, for building a tower. He tells of a king going to war against another king, and considering the sizes of their respective armies. He wants us to make our calculations in such a calm, collected, and cold way.
And what is the verdict upon considering martyrdom in such a way? It's simple. Human biological life is of finite worth. That may sound like a emotion-based statement, but it's not; its a simple statement of fact. What we gain in martyrdom, however, is of infinite value. It is the expression of a human soul, which truly is priceless. And the exchange of the finite for the infinite is a simple calculation. It is as Jim Elliot (a Christian missionary and martyr) said: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
The evaluation of the exchange doesn't simply stop there. There is a deeper reason that goes beyond "human biological life = finite value" and "expressing our soul for God in martyrdom = infinite value". Life was always meant to be lived in service of something greater. The very reason that that human life has value at all, is that it can be spent on a cause greater than itself. This is also the reason that human life could never be more valuable than the greatest of these causes: God himself. This is no less than what great men throughout the world have said about the value of life. Martin Luther King Jr. (a Christian reverend and martyr) said that "If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live". Christ himself said that "whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it". This idea is even echoed by Admiral Yi Sun Shin (from a pre-Christian Korea, who died in battle), who said, "Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die". Life itself is valuable because of what you're willing to live and die for. If there is no such thing - if your only goal in life is to stay alive - then you'll have wasted your life, and ultimately, you will fail in your task: you will surely die. In not realizing what gives life value, you will be like a man who runs into his burning home to rescue his family portrait, while his family dies in the fire.
(The next week's post will be a continuation of this post.)
You may next want to read:
On martyrdom (Part 5) (Next post of this series)
On martyrdom - the value of a human life (part 3) (Previous post of this series)
The universe is an MMO, and God is the game designer.
Another post, from the table of contents