Do You Have to Die to Be a Martyr?

In response to my post on Constance and her companions, yesterday, I had a number of questions about Martyrdom. The most provocative and (I hope) click-worthy is the one I selected as a title for today’s post. But I’ll try to address as many of them as possible in this breif post.
“Martyr” is a direct import from Ancient Greek into the English language. This simple point betrays, I think, the fact that we will be dealing with either an objectively important concept, or a concept that has had layers of meaning and importance piled upon it. Hint: It’s the later.
Most often when concepts are being brought from one language to another, words from the target language are either chosen or created. only when a special connection to the original language needs to be maintained (think, escargot vs. snails) or when a specific, contextual meaning needs to be reinforced (ennui vs. boredom) do we tend to port the entire word into a target language.
Martyr, in the language of Plato and Aristotle, of Jesus and of Paul, means “witness.” That’s it. It has many of the same cultural functional uses as the English term does: courtroom/legal, reporting, even survey and manufacture. But, for one reason or another, when used in the context of religion, it takes on a special – and, some times, too many special – meaning.
The notion of Martyrdom as “dying for ones faith/commitments” is operative in the time of Jesus, certainly since the time of Socrates, folks who have died or, more likily been unfairly killed on account of their faith has been well known. Moreover, many of these are ultimately celebrated for their commitment to the cause. Even the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ time concern themselves with whether Jesus or, eventually his disciples, should be disciplined at all, fearing that such punishment might only further their cause.
What is unclear, though is two-fold. (1) Whether Jesus supported this view of death-for-a-cause and (2) whether he would have used the term ‘Marytr” (i.e. Witness) to describe it.
To the first point, it seems tha Jesus likely understood the value of giving ones life for a cause. With the amount of time he spends discussion “laying down one’s life,” and “taking up one’s cross,” it seems unlikely that he was ignorant on this point. What is less clear, though, is whether this is what he meant when he used the word “Martyr.”
When Jesus says “you will be my WITNESSES in Jerusalem and Judea and. . . .” He uses the word Martyr. But here I believe that he is using it in the common way. He may, in fact, know that such witness will cause the death of some of his disciples, but I certainly don’t believe that he thinks such is the only way to spread the Gospel.
What is more clear, however, is that by the end of the 4th century, the meaning of the word Martyr (ported, by this point into the Latin of the western church) became fixed to the notion of Death. Simply bearing witness to the power of god in one’s life had more to do with evangelism or apologetics, in order to be a Martyr proper, one had to die.
I, for one, think this is an unfortunate turn of events and would be all for a general reclaimation of a notion of witness, even if we called it Martyrdom, that was was less grizzly. Surely, it is difficult to overstate the power and importance of making the “ultimate sacrifice.” But, as the early Christian thinker Origen tries to explain to his father who is, incidentally contemplating “voluntary Martyrdom”, God both delights in and has extended plans for LIVING saints. Martyrdom may have powerful effects, but it is a “single-shot” solution. It’s hard to argue that the one-time effect of someone dying for their faith is greater than the repeat-action of a long life well lived.
So, in a word “no.” I don’t believe one has to die to be a martyr. In fact, the greater sacrifice may be to LIVE every day as a witness to the power of God in your life.

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