Letters to a Struggling Young Friend - First Question
1. What makes the disciples martyrdom different from the martyrdom of the ISIS militants? Both truly believe in their cause, both are willing to die or their cause, and both are in a position to know if it is true or not. Couldn't the disciples be as crazy and deluded as ISIS?
This is an interesting question. The confusion comes in with the language that we use. It is one word that describes two different realities. In the Christian world the word martyr comes from the Greek word for "Witness". A martyr in the Christian faith is someone who has witnessed to the Risen Lord to the point where someone takes their life. In the Church this is viewed as the ultimate witness and a certain climax to Christian holiness because one has imitated Jesus Christ in life and in death. So the martyr is one who lays down one's life for Christ and for others.
In the Muslim religion this is not so. The archetype of the Muslim martyr is one who dies while in battle spreading Islam. ISIS would celebrate those soldiers who kill in the name of Allah and the spread of their version of what it means to be a Muslim (many Muslims disagree with ISIS!). The Muslim martyr is more akin to the Viking concept of the warrior dead that enter Valhalla than of Christian who dies for others.
A Deeper Dive into Christian Martyrdom
The Christian concept of martyrdom is rooted in the two archetypes in our Faith: Jesus Christ and St. Stephen. Jesus Christ was opposed by the politically powerful, oppressed, tortured and murdered. "He submitted and opened not his mouth." Jesus said in His great Beatitudes these powerful words:
"Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12)
And again, some fun words from Jesus...
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15: 18-22)
And again, this is how Jesus speaks of the very basic conditions of being a disciple:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? (Matthew 16:24-26)
So you have a bunch of people who are disciples of Jesus Christ in the first 300 years and what are they doing? They are spreading the Gospel by "one anothering one another" to such a radical way that everyone wanted that they had. What do I mean by that? They radically loved one another, encouraged one another, supported one another, lived in harmony with one another, did not judge one another, welcomed and greeted one another, instructed one another, cared for one another, agreed with one another, became servants of one another, did not provoke one another or envy one another, and they bore one another's burdens.
It was crazy to love one another, especially if that person was your enemy, but that's what Jesus tells us to do. We loved one another to the point that our faith spread throughout Rome. In fact, we loved our enemies to the point of witnessing that love to them while they killed us, just like Jesus did. One of Jesus' last words from the Cross was "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!"
Here's where St. Stephen comes in.
St. Stephen was one of seven men that were ordained the first deacons in the Church. One chapter later in the Book of Acts, St. Stephen becomes the first martyr as well. He died for his faith in such a powerful and beautiful way that it became the archetype by which other men and women would die, following Christ. Here's the narrative and pay attention to who He prayed for as he was being murdered:
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
Why am I writing all of this? Because I wanted to show you that ISIS was political and military power in the name of religion. Men have been using whatever suits them to garner worldly power and they have aggrandized and made heroes out of those who have died advancing the cause of worldly power. Mohammed did it. ISIS does it. The Vikings did it, too.
Then there is Jesus.
Jesus says that our greatest heroes are those who die for one another, who lay down their lives so that others might live. Jesus declares that those who are so true to Christ that even life itself isn't worth betrayal are the fullest witnesses to what His love can do in the world. There are many atheists who make of Christianity or Jesus a caricature, and then laugh at this false image. But come on! If you are really going to oppose something, oppose it for what it is, and not the fake straw man that you pretend it is!
Jesus is quite clear, but sometimes we Christians make things horribly muddled. Jesus says "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." In fact, he makes persecution for the sake of righteousness a bedrock foundation of Christianity. When Peter uses the sword to defend Jesus in the Garden, Jesus tells him to put it away and then heals the soldier with the severed ear. Violence and war were never advanced by Christ, though, as I said above, there have been and are today plenty of Christians who do advance it in the name of Jesus, or America, or freedom, or whatever.
The Twelve Apostles and St. Paul never once cut off someone's head for not being a Christian. In fact, St. Paul literally had his head cut off by the Romans. Peter was crucified upside down. Bartholomew was flayed. On and one it goes. There is a categorical difference between Christian martyrs and Muslim martyrs.
And in a closing disclaimer, let me say that I love a lot about Islam and their are Muslims all over the world who despise ISIS. In fact, we are even seeing Muslims convert to Christianity directly because of the evil witness of ISIS and their extremist ilk.