How Martyrs Expose Theological Lies

As a child, tales of saintly heroism could launch my imagination to the clouds. As a Jesuit novice, I continued daydreaming about the glory of martyrdom. Headlines over the past few months, however, have chastened that vanity.
At some point, a Christian will likely come across Tertullian’s dictum, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Martyr, from the Greek, μαρτυρα, means, witness, and on today’s stage we see two types — the martyr who endures violence unto death, and the one who inflicts it — unto his own, and others’ deaths. Each represents wholly disparate species, and bears witness to radically different possibilities.

Footage of fresh crucifixions and beheadings, from which even children are not exempt, is finally reaching Western viewers aghast at the evil on display. The cumulative effect can sear the mind with a distortion of the world till, as in my case, I feel a macabre twist on the iconic monkey — seeing, hearing, and speaking only evil.

I’ve previously used the term, “evil,” rarely, and only with due caution. But, the depravity unfolding is so extreme avoiding it is no longer possible. I offer then, a reflection I trust is consistent with, but does not purport to speak for orthodox Christian teaching.

Every lie is a form of sin, and every sin is by nature a lie. It’s with good reason the devil is called the father of lies. I suggest, therefore, that in describing the evil personified by ISIS, we include the aspect of moral insanity — that which results when lies, organized in direct opposition to an essential truth reach, then exceed, critical mass. That essential truth, shared by Judaism and Christianity, is that every human being enters the world in the image and likeness of God.

The distance any individual, group, or culture strays from this truth is distance put between itself and that integrity which is the sine qua non of health itself — the sanitas, from which the term, sanity, derives.

Early on, Christians took a further step by confessing Jesus of Nazareth as the image, in whom the transcendent God is made palpable, and through whom the invitation to participate fully in God’s divinity, is extended, without exception, to all.

In the experience of his cohort, Jesus incarnates the epiphany, “God is love.” The love that illumines all, governs all, and tempers justice with mercy. So original, so essential is this love that it hypostasizes God’s own being.

This is not just alien to ISIS, but the contradiction of its very core, exposing its violent self-righteousness as the theopathy it actually is. For beneath its bloodlust is rage, and beneath that rage is love’s opposite, terror. Making an idol out of a temptation is the lie that initiates the chain-reaction to moral madness and the explosion of evil.

The consequences for Muslims who differ are all too clear. Muslims themselves therefore must identify — clearly and publicly — the lies in the ISIS presentation of Koran and sharia. Muslims must refute ISIS claims to religious legitimacy and its attendant political spoils.

As of last weekend, the U.S. began a military intervention whose strict parameters are evidence of, at best, a deep confusion. Yet even a serious application of military resources would be but a contribution to anything resembling a solution. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, theology and philosophy have critical, realpolitik roles to play in the kind of campaign required to stanch the flow of atrocities, and provide sustained witness to that essential truth infinitely more powerful than terror, bombs, and bullets.

Christians in places like Iraq and Syria have learned that the worst is reserved for them. Church tradition refers to red and white martyrs — the latter so called because their sacrifices involve no shedding of blood. Tragically, the foreseeable future will almost surely enlist both.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It is also a fire that purges lies.

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