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Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
In praise of martyrs, ancient and contemporary
Today it is less religious faith which invites martyrdom than the commitment to human rights
Published:
January 30, 2023 11:57 AM GMT

In many parts of India, Jan. 30 is observed as “Martyrs’ Day,” in memory of Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated on this day in Delhi in 1948.

He was killed because he stood for certain values — truth, justice, the service of oppressed Harijans, and particularly for Hindu-Muslim unity.

A martyr is therefore someone who constantly witnesses to certain values in his life, and sometimes by his death. In every country, and in every age, there have been such witnesses.

In a way, martyrdom is not mainly about death, even violent death. It has principally to do with life and its values — what do you stand for? What is it which gives the fullest meaning to your life?

What are the values you give witness to?

The word ‘witness’ is a rich word, both in ancient times and today. The Biblical meaning of witness is not the same as ours. We use the term in a legal sense today, or when we refer to scientific evidence.

"For 300 years they took the full brunt of persecution from the Roman Empire"

However, in the New and Old Testaments, a witness is someone who testifies to a truth he believes in and to which he commits his life. You may call this sense ‘existential,’ that is, the context is one’s very life.

John’s Gospel speaks of the Baptist as the “witness to the light,” and Jesus before Pilate describes his task as “being a witness to the truth.” The Book of Revelation calls Jesus, “the faithful witness.”

The Greek word for ‘witness’ was martys (martyr) and so it was applied to those who, like Jesus, witnessed publicly their belief in him and his truth, and who gave their lives for their beliefs.

The first Christians were like this: they were fiercely loyal to Christ who had transformed their lives completely. They were ‘working class’ most of them — slaves, small-time artisans, servant girls, migrants in the big cities of Rome and Antioch — but their commitment to Jesus was complete and confident. They never wavered. Think of Stephen, proto-martyr, and the apostle, Paul.

For 300 years they took the full brunt of persecution from the Roman Empire. They not only survived, they prevailed.

Are there martyrs today?  Most certainly there are.

Earlier martyrs bore witness to their religious faith. More recently, many have sacrificed life and liberty for the freedom and independence of their countries. Think of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.

But there are also many today who espouse human rights, who uplift the human spirit, who take the side of the oppressed against vicious and dictatorial governments, who agitate for freedom of speech and movement, and fight for the rule of law against feudal practices and corporate lobbies — and they pay for this with their lives. 

"Today it is less religious faith which invites martyrdom than the commitment to human rights"

Think of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria and his five companions, Rani Maria Vattalil, Valsa John Malamel, Anna Politkovskaya, Jerzy Popieluzsko, Gauri Lankesh, Malleshappa Kalburgi, Stan Swamy,  Jamal Khashoggi, Rutilio Grande, Asma Jahangir… the list goes on.

In each of the above cases, we can see a heroic witness to the values of human rights, which now become acts of faith in the divine, present “in the least of my brothers and sisters.” It is this heroism which invites persecution and even death.

Today it is less religious faith which invites martyrdom than the commitment to human rights and the value of the human person.  In today’s violent and confused world, it’s adherence to these values which brings imprisonment, exile and assassination.

There’s one more value that calls for heroism today, because it confronts corporate greed and dysfunctional government: standing up for the environment, fighting to prevent the destruction of Mother Earth.

Ecological concerns have moved center stage today, for the perils of climate change spare no one and afflict every country — rising sea levels, global warming, intemperate storms, and desertification, to name just a few.

The ‘witnesses’ who challenge the conventional ethos are often derided and debunked: Sunderlal Bahaguna, Greta Thunberg, and Medha Patkar. For they speak out against a consumer culture that ravages us all.

What then is an ethos for our 21st century? To live frugally and responsibly. To act non-violently and share what we have. To bear witness to our religious and spiritual beliefs with courage and wisdom. 

Ultimately this is what being a martyr really is.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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1 Comments on this Story
JEFFREY RAM
Thanks for the inspiring article.
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
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