“Martyr” means both far less AND far more than most people think it does…
The power and subtlety of English is largely due to its wide-ranging propensity for embracing words from other languages. In recent years, though, political pressure from non-native speakers has combined with questionable teaching methods to “dumb down” the language, in the name of making English “more accessible.” This excessive simplification sacrifices nuance… and frequently renders hundreds of years of literature badly confused or even useless.
The ancient word “martyr” is an excellent example. Radical Islam abuses the term, newscasters parrot those who abuse it, most modern, Christian teachers/preachers avoid anything that smacks of controversy, and many Bibles no longer even translate the word out of Greek. As a result, “martyr” has become popularly misunderstood AND incorrectly defined as solely meaning “someone who dies for their faith.” This definition entirely misses the richness, power, and actual meaning of this ancient Greek word…
More importantly, it prevents Christians from properly understanding how we are ALL called to live!
The Greek word “martyr” (Gk: μάρτυρας) came into English via Latin, and simply means “Witness.” As he ascends to the Father (Acts 1:7-9), Jesus calls us to witness to Him “…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” His Universal Call was not to teach or to preach…. it was to bear Witness. A witness conveys that which they know to be true or that which they have personally experienced. This requires no special skill. It is something that we are all capable of doing…. and something to which ALL Christians are called to do; be witnesses. Early Christians carried their witness everywhere that they went. So much so that, within a very short time, communities of Christians grew within all primary centres of the Roman Empire and even well beyond the Roman frontiers.
This teaching to “be witness” was well understood. For earlier Christians this was simply their way of life and, as they lived out their witnesses, three colors came to describe distinct patterns of that life-witness. Over the centuries, “witness” came to be divided into: red martyrdom — sacrificing our lives in favor of committment to Christ; white martyrdom — forsaking one’s home for the sake of mission or due to persecution in the form of imprisonment/ exile; and green martyrdom — actively living a daily struggle for goodness, purity, and service to Christ, regardless of difficulty and whether on a mountain top or in the midst of the world.
Because so many of the early witnesses to Christ were killed for their faith, in the ears of many, “martyr” became associated with specific implication of that “Red Martyrdom” of a blood-witness. Since the most striking witness that Christians could bear to their faith was to die rather than deny it, the word soon began to be commonly used in reference to one who was not only a witness, but was specifically a witness unto death. In fact, it is this usage which is implied in Acts 22:20 and Revelation 2:13. This form of “witness” was so powerful that other forms of martyrdom were too often forgotten or ignored. Understand, however, this is not the same as saying that the primary meaning was lost in Christian teaching and understanding.
Genuine martyrdom (even red martyrdom) is really about how you live! Each person (either intentionally or inadvertantly) bears witness to that which is precious to him. What we bear witness to is rooted in where our heart is and whom we serve; whether we serve God, mammon, or some other false god! As Christians enter into yet another season of sifting and persecution, it’s time for us to re-discover the wider tradition of what it means to be a martyr… to be a witness.
One form of White Martyrdom sets aside common freedoms by consecrating one’s life exclusively to Christ alone. This might begin with vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience…. or it could begin with a journey, to witness Christ in a far land. Another common form of White Martyrdom involves choosing to accept imprisonment and/or exile, rather than denying Christ before man. (Matthew 10:33) In the old USSR, White Martyrdom (and, far too commonly, Red Martyrdom as well) was too often observed in the white snow of both Siberia and its Gulags. These are constant reminders of the potential price of living as witness to Jesus, our Christ.
Green Martyrs are known for setting aside the comforts and pleasures of secular human society to study Scripture, commune with God, and strengthen the witness of their lives. We see distinct illustrations of this in the lives of Anchorite Monks, who lived as hermits in the Egyptian desert, the later, more social Augustinian and Benedictine monastics, and even in orders of Friars, who witnessed the monastic heart as they shared the Good News in their travels. Many of the early Irish monastics, from whom we get this term, were well known for their fasting as well as physical and social sacrifices. However, this form of witness (and even the discrimination and persecution that come with it) is something that we are ALL called to. Many of those whom we publicly name as Saints are simply men and women who exemplified a simple day-in and day-out choosing of God over Mammon (Luke 16:13), without regard for how they were treated. This form of martyrdom… of witness… came to be symbolized in the color green.
Witnessing Christ to the world means enduring persecution. (Matthew 5:11, John 15:20) In many Islamic lands, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in examples of Red and White Martyrdom. However, in more and more western countries, increasing hostility to Christianity is pressing opportunities for Green Martyrdom into the lives of a growing number of Christians…. The secular world’s call to compromise and comfort is difficult to ignore; it demands that we “go along, to get along.” We have recently seen a senior high-tech manager who was fired for upholding traditional, Christian teachings outside of work…. a British Airways employee and a Nurse who were ordered to remove her cross at work… demands by the U.S. government for Christian medical providers provide sterilization, abortifacients and contraceptives, in violation of their beliefs… the case of Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, the company best known for creating Firefox, who eventually lost his position, for donating simply $1,000 to support traditional marriage… Christian bakers who face government wrath for refusing to make a cake in support of a gay wedding… Fred Henry, the Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary, who was threatened with governmental litigation and charged with a human-rights violation after he wrote a letter to local churches on the church’s own teaching on marriage… US Military Chaplains who are threatened for Remaining True to Traditional Christianity… and even demands that peaceful, Bible-believing Christians should be labeled terrorists! How we stand during these times has direct bearing on whether or not we witness Christ to those around us!
To be a martyr is uncomplicated… but hard… that is to say that it requires courage and dedication but is nothing more or less than living as a witness to the Good News of our Christ… our Messiah… our Savior. The early Christians were well aware of the eroding character of comfort and routine on the spiritual life. They intimately understood that “dying to self” (Philippians 3:7-21 ) witnesses to others and helps us grow nearer to Christ, by following Jesus’ admonition to “take up your cross and follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
Persistent practice in guarding our heart and whom we serve helps us grow into life as a witness. Begin with simple choices… begin with yourself… begin by addressing even one daily action or habit which prevents others from seeing Christ in you. Commit to spend a bit of time in Scripture each day, especially the New Testament; it becomes easier to love our Lord, to serve Him, and to witness Him well if you spend time getting to know Him….
IF we truly claim to follow Jesus, our Christ, then we are called to sacrifice every aspect of our lives in witness to Him, to those around us! Remember…. be witnesses… be a true and living Societas Martyrum! (2 Cor 4:1-7, Acts 14:3)
Shalom; Christ’s peace to you!