Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
May 24th, 2011

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

Maximillian refused to fight in the Roman army of Diocletian, 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.

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!

The Author : Annie Turner
Ann Turner is a passionate convert to the Catholic faith, who is also passionate about life in general, small dogs, food and wine, friends, nature, and the blessing that comes from just showing up and being a witness with other people. Follow Ann's faith journey & more at: itsthegodthing.blogspot.com. Ann is also the published author of over forty children's books. She loves to hear from her readers.
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  • Jairo

    What an interesting topic you picked. But, I’m not sure you understand the basics here

    1. I wouldn’t say Christians glorify martyrs . But, we do remember them and honor their commitment to the faith in the face of evil. These people didn’t ask to die nor did they want to die. They were put to death merely for professing their belief in Christ. Put to death by horrible and evil individuals, there is nothing glorious in that.

    2. You seem to mistake Christian martyrs with muslim martyrs. Nothing could be father from the truth. Even today in Islamic countries Christians are persecuted and killed for their beliefs. Again they don’t ask for this, it is done to them. Muslim martyrs are quotes different. Suicide bombers kill themselves to kill non believers. This is non martyrdom but insanity.

    Please continue reading, there is more to understand than the grisly way these poor Christians were made to die.

    Good luck,


  • Eduardo

    What a profound lack of knowledge and total misunderstanding of martyrdom. I suggest you go back to Catholic 101. You may also want to open your eyes to what is going on to Christians in Pakistan, Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. Try reading ONE magazine for starters. I’m creeped out by your ignorance.

  • Ann W. Turner

    Thanks, Phil, for your comment–this definitely ties in with what I have observed and restores to us the deep respect we need to have for people who have unwillingly lost their lives in the service of others. Maybe the glorification of martyrs partakes, a little, of a similar glorification of war, which doesn’t hone in on the vicious and often unending wounds it leaves among so many.

  • Emily

    The one thing I love about this website is how REAL people express REAL feelings about religion. I’d love to say that I’d want to be a martyr, but realistically, I’d rather serve God in a way that involves staying alive. I also had a hard time finding a confirmation saint because so many female catholic saints were martyrs. I wanted to help others! I didn’t want to die! I have found some of the stories of the martyrs to “gross me out” and I hope that God’s plan for me doesn’t involve putting me into that situation.
    Thanks for writing an article which expresses what many of us have always felt. Although, if put in a “life or death” situation, hopefully we’d keep our faith, but realistically, we hope that God has something less painful in store for us! Thanks for the honesty.

  • Phil Little

    I would think that what is “creepy” is not so much the reality of the martyrs but the sappy stories developed by the church to “enhance” the narrative into a Disney-type legend – which ultimately destroys the power of the original “witness”. I worked as a missionary in Latin America for 8 years and in that short time came to know and be friend to three people who could today be called “martyrs”. They did not choose to be “martyrs” nor desired such a fate. They were profoundly dedicated to life, and struggled to bring life in abundance to others. Two were priests, the other a lay woman who was a teacher in Northern Peru. As they died I am sure none of them were calmly saying “gosh golly I get to be a martyr!” – I am sure they struggled and fought for life, and the irony is that they were killed by persons who called themselves “Christians” committed to defending their version of Christian-society where the privileged and wealthy count more than the poor peasant. For this reason they will probably never be recognized as “martyrs” because their witness points out the contradictions of official church politics and alignments. However the story of these modern day martyrs should be read so that the concept of “martyr” not be fossilized in the scripted stories of the ancient martyrs – whose real stories are unfortunately lost to all the editing. (Perhaps we also need to realize that the same process happened to the Jesus story – but that is too much for many believers to deal with.) check this out

  • Theresa Henderson

    I always thought I’d never be good enough to be a saint. Now I just strive to be good. Sainthood happens when people aren’t looking for it, but for acting in love. Lots of people go through what could be a martyrdom, only God says it isn’t your time yet. Sometimes life can be so painful for some people that dying feels preferable. I was pregnant with my son and his father left me. I felt like such a failure, slipped into a deep depression, and then I developed a blood clot in my foot. I was told by the doctors in the hospital to abort my baby so they could give me the medicines to dissolve the clot. But they won’t give you the medicines while pregnant because the medicines will “harm the fetus”. Like an abortion won’t “harm” the fetus?? How stupid! But they terrified me with what they described,and that we’d probably BOTH die anyhow.

    But I couldn’t justify killing a baby to save my life. So I asked God to let me live long enough to give the kid a fighting chance, so certain I was that this clot was going to kill me.

    Instead, the clot dissolved by itself and the next 4 months I had a normal pregnancy and a beautiful son! Never was able to carry another pregnancy to term BUT now, 30 years later, I have grandchildren too!

  • Mac

    I had to search far and wide to find a confirmation name of a female saint who didn’t die a horrible, ghastly, and early death. When everyone asked “why St. Angela?” I always said “because she died peacefully in bed of old age.”

  • Ann W. Turner

    Good heavens. I love it that we all have such strong opinions and feelings about this, and some side issues as well. I certainly agree that martyrs are not just “Catholic,” that they are in many other faith traditions, including Islam. James, I agree with you about the continued (and tragic) persecution of Christians abroad–it is very saddening. Alex, I also respect the deep commitment of men like Oscar Romero (a hero of mine) who stood with the marginalized against the power structures. He did give everything. No question. I’m not sure I’d agree, theologically, that Jesus is “the first martyr.” This is my opinion, only; my understanding is that being made a martyr involves not denouncing the faith and belief you are committed to. I don’t think that’s what happened with Jesus; more, he was killed because he threatened the power structures of the day, both of Rome and of the Temple–he didn’t buy into the “purity code”–and he continued to feast with “sinners.” He refused to return violence with violence, and for me, that is slightly different than the traditional martyrdom. Also, I think my being “creeped out” has more to do with a glorification of martyrs, particularly so many of the very early ones. But my “take” on this, is not meant to “diss” men and women who have stood up courageously for their beliefs. Joan of Arc is also a personal hero.

  • Kenneth

    The Church of Rome is “strange and alien” because it’s Satan’s Church.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    Megan, I am totally with you. Relics. Ew. That’s but one of the reasons I want to be cremated after I die, and have the ashes scattered, preferably in a woods or big lake somewhere. Not that I’m any more a saint than the next guy :-)
    But yeah, I understand that Jesus’ death was much more a political thing; as you said, he upset the status quo. I also think it is really gross to go around wearing a cross or crucifix. Again, ew. And way to lay on the guilt, if that’s the sort of thing you buy into.
    Personally, I’d have been much more impressed if he’d worked out some kind of deal with the Roman occupation that would have led to better conditions for all concerned. A dramatic “laying down one’s life for the cause” sure gets attention, but I think it’s a lot harder and more effective to work to make things better. All that said, do remember how many indigenous peoples that were slaughtered because they didn’t have the “right” religion, e.g., Christianity. (I’m sure the native populqtions were every bit as convinced they knew The Truth, and with exactly the same amount of proof.) It’s not so much about spirituality as it is about politics and power. It gives the guys with the bigger swords an excuse to take the other guy’s land and not sound like the greedy ghoul he is.

  • James

    So, Ann, if put in that situation, as many are today, what would you do? Renounce your faith? I don’t think you made that clear.

    These people were given only two choices, renounce Christianity or die. They weren’t given the alternative of doing an alternative assignment they liked better.

  • Megan

    Let’s settle one small point of fact: honoring the early martyrs is not a CATHOLIC tradition. It is a CHRISTIAN tradition, starting with the death of Jesus himself.

    I think we have to remember that Jesus was radically countercultural and was perceived by the authorities of his day to be quite a threat to the status quo. If we fail to understand that part of his ministry, we cannot possibly understand the meaning of the Cross.

    Honoring Jesus for speaking God’s truth and doing God’s will, EVEN THOUGH it led to the Cross, isn’t creepy in the least bit, IMHO. It is the central part of our faith.

    The Christian martyrs, from St. Peter on up to Archbishop Oscar Romero and his contemporaries, help to serve as examples for us of what wholehearted Christian commitment *can* look like. It forces us to remember that the wholehearted embracing of the Cross can sometimes lead to… a Cross. This is not creepy; it is joyful. We can follow Jesus to Golgotha, if necessary, because we know that Jesus was resurrected.

    So. That being said, can I also say that while this isn’t one of them, there ARE plenty of “strange Catholic traditions” — and some of them are highly creepy. Venerating relics of saints? I mean, really??? Our holiest people don’t get to be buried — they get chopped up in pieces and all their bits put on display in gilded reliquaries. (“Look Mom! The decayed armbone of Saint Somebody-or-other!”) Does anyone else think this is weird??

    So sure, our faith is full of creepy traditions — but martyrs? Nope, they’re just good examples.

  • Sally

    I would be happy to by martyred for God except that in my death someone has to do the killing. Is it not a sin to allow someone else to commit a sin without trying to stop them?

  • Matt

    Between death and cake, I’d certainly choose cake as well. :)

    Indeed, we as Christians are forbidden to _seek_ martyrdom. We must choose life. But there are times when life isn’t on the menu, and our choice is reduced down to the death of our bodies, at the hands of God’s enemies, or the death of our souls at our own hands (by joining with those enemies).

    Given that our souls have the option (providing we don’t screw it up by our own shortsighted choices) of living in eternity with God, while our bodies will surely die one day regardless of our own actions, the most reasonable choice in that situation seems obvious.

    It’s not God that demands bloody sacrifice of our bodies — it’s the Enemy, and his multitudinous minions here on Earth.

    And so I’m very grateful for the good fortune to live in a time and place where fidelity to God and His Church is unlikely to place me in peril of martyrdom, while I hope that, if circumstances were to withdraw that fortune, I’d retain the strength of character to choose well.

    Even for those of us who don’t face death in defense of the Truth, temptations to renounce God abound. The worldly rewards for doing so can be awfully enticing. It’s good for us, then, to have examples before us of holy men and women who successfully resisted far greater temptations than we’ll likely ever face.

  • Jeanne

    I like what “The Crescat” has to say about this: She refers to our Catholic faith as “the punk rock of religions“.

  • Neil Draves-Arpaia

    I guess you must be creeped out by Jesus himself…for it says, “then singing a hymn of praise they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Mt. 26:30) So, Jesus himself goes into his “hour” with a hymn of praise; and martyrs, strengthened bv the same Spirit that was in the Lord, can go to their hour with a hymn of praise to their God. Not so creepy when you ponder that with God’s grace all things are possible!

  • Alex M.

    So. I am totally with you. A few years ago DC Talk put out this book called Jesus Freaks and all my friends were talking about it. They thought it was so inspiring that someone would continue to profess faith with a gun to their head. I thought it was incredibly impractical. What about the families and churches they were leaving behind? Wouldn’t God rather they tell a white lie and keep doing the good work?

    However, when I started seminary, I learned about a different type of martyrdom, a type that followed in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the type epitomized by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Oscar Romero. This type of martyr says, “I am going to work to end injustice, even thought it’s dangerous, even though I know I am putting my life at risk.”

    With this new understanding of Jesus’ martyrdom, when I see him hanging on the cross, I hear him issuing a challenge. He says to me, “This is how far I have gone and this is what they have done to me. What about you? How far will you go?”

  • James Leo Oliver

    The sad fact is that Catholics and Christians are still being martyred for their faith in many countries around the world on a regular basis. You could or would die if you were a Catholic at one time in Mexico, France, Japan, Germany, Poland, Viet Nam, China, England, Spain and many other parts of the world. Iraq has a radical segment of it’s population killing Christians even as I write this. The persecution of Christians is a 2,000 year old endeavor that continues in 2011.

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