Creeped Out By Martyrs
A questioning look at this strange Catholic tradition
Is anyone else as creeped out by martyrs as I am? As a Catholic convert, I still find parts of the church strange and alien, and martyrs are right at the top of “strange and alien” for me.
Maybe it’s because I love my life so much. Maybe it’s because I cannot understand a God who would require that kind of bloody sacrifice. Maybe it’s the idea of people singing (hopefully in key) as they go to a gory death. There’s Maximillian, an early Christian who refused to fight in the Roman army of Diocletian (who was famous for his widespread slaughter of Christians), saying, “I serve in God’s army and will not fight in this one.” Something to that effect. I like that; I just hate the death part. Like Eddie Izzard, if I had a choice between “death and cakes,” I so would choose cakes.
Then there’s Perpetua and her slave Felicity, who were torn apart by wild beasts in an arena in Carthage. I suppose we should be grateful they are not ravaged by wild or rabid cows, as I have read some other martyrs were. (This makes the mind furiously to think: How does an herbivore become rabid? And… a cow?) Perpetua, as you will remember, had a baby at the time and was tormented by being separated from her baby. When someone bribed the jailers and brought her infant to her, she found “the prison was made a palace for me.” Those are bracing words, and I admire her courage. But she refused to recant, despite her papa’s pleas (“Please, honey, I will buy you a Pandora bracelet with ten trinkets if you just say ‘I don’t'”) and she and Felicity were killed.
Other martyrs spring to mind: Agatha of Sicily who was persecuted by Decius (he obviously had gotten his MBA in persecuting early Christians). When she refused the less than welcome advances of Decius’ prefect in Sicily, he handed her over to a brothel where her breasts were crushed, then cut off. Oh, she also — after having been brought back to life by St. Peter — was rolled over hot coals. An earthquake then ensued, as if in a play direction: “Roll of thunder heard offstage.”
Giving out for God
It’s not that I’m against honoring those who have died being faithful witnesses, like the seven monks in the new French film, Of Gods and Men. After all, martyr comes from the Greek word martys meaning “witness.” I like witnessing to my own faith and try to do so with some regularity without causing people to either drool excessively or fall into comas.
But in the long run, I just don’t get the martyr thing, nor could I do it. It’s the whole idea of “What are we willing to give up for God?” that nags at me. I’d so much rather come down on the side of, What can we give out for God? How can we be more merciful, more compassionate, more understanding, more forgiving? Like that.
Here’s a starter: I am willing to give up bad knees to God; I am willing to give up distracted drivers to God; I am willing to give up food poisoning, rude people, cruelty, genocide, child slavery, abuse of women, and anything else which diminishes our humanity.
And, if that doesn’t do the trick, I could be persuaded to give up these weeks of cold, rainy weather to God. I’ll wrap up the cloudy days and relentless storms into one wet, messy package, and sent it posthaste to heaven. That’s the kind of sacrifice I can get behind!