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September 29, 2022

Martyrdom beyond emotionalism

Their photographs ornate a Tirana boulevard, especially for Pope Francisc’s visit. However, dozens of years ago, they were suffering and dying in conditions hard to imagine, the price of the brutal installation of communism and a campaign that was to turn Albania into the first officially completely atheist state. Today’s Catholics regard them as martyrs. Nonetheless, the small Balkan state was not an exception to the rule in the last century: many Christians of various confessions were bullied, locked up, tortured, massacred, even in the very millennial stronghold of Christianity, Europe. The evolution of Christian communities in Asia and Africa has been sinuous: sometime it grew thanks to the various missions, other times it suffered dramatic losses either as a consequence of brutal communist policies or under the pressure of the Islam.

The first question is who are those who hate Christians so much that they would not hesitate to torture and massacre other human beings, especially during a period claimed to be much more civilised than the ‘barbarian’ times passed. The Romanian case is a more special one, because here, religious denominations continued to be legal even under communism. One of the allegations made – as an apex of cynicism – to convict people was that they were spreading ‘calumnious’ information on the Soviet atheism. An atheism characterised by extreme virulence: even Khrushchev, in full process of de-Stalinisation, launched a new fierce anti-religious campaign. It’s true that Stalin, having first killed a few hundred bishops and a few hundred thousand priests, scared by the headway being made by German armies, allowed the Orthodox Church to regain some public presence.
But the plan was to actually destroy religions. The Romanian Orthodox indirectly benefited from that politically-directed re-launch of the Russian Church (who had also acquired a role in the new Soviet imperialism). Arrests were operated strictly on political criteria, with two exceptions: the ‘sectants’, meaning the neo-Protestant churches that were not recognised by the state, and the ‘mystics’, meaning the Orthodox believed to be much too adverse to atheism and official materialism. But Romanian communists had a competitive edge in this atheist plan: they could very easily bring a signally ‘political’ charge against the opponent, accusing him of supporting the former Iron Guard movement. One has to note that the Iron Guard people themselves had built martyr auras well in advance. They were fighting not just a political war, but also a religious war, assimilating communism to a perfidious and atrocious ‘apocalyptic beast’. Furthermore, in their project of enhancing Orthodoxy, the Iron Guard was counting on a new pathos of ‘sacrifice’, and communist prisons and labour camps repaid such ‘mystic’ appetence enough and to spare. A moral analysis of the ‘crimes of communism’ needs to methodologically address executioners and victims separately. Because it is not a ‘domestic’ crime, but a Kulturkampf ending in massacre. The executioners, first of all the communist leaders who knew it very well that, without the Securitate, their regime didn’t stand a chance, had overcome their moral hesitations. To them, history was a tough fight and the opponents deserved their fate because of their ‘historic’ sins. For that reason, a large and steady propagandistic effort was dedicated by the communist exactly to such claimed guilt of the past. However, one has to make the distinction between judging the past and the claims of politics. The legitimisation of a regime often notably turns to both reprobation and reclamation against phenomena of the past. What should make us alert are the moral ramifications. The end does not excuse the means, because, when the means trespass a certain line of injustice, the ends become treacherous. Any crime, let alone a massacre, must bring us face to face with some serious moral dilemmas.
If, on the other hand, we look at the victims’ world, who is actually a martyr? Most of the people who were arrested and killed by the communist were not accused of their religious faith. In practice, however, the criterion was not to be neglected, also because the most religiously ‘active’ figures were opposing – one way or another – the new regime, declared atheist (but officially tolerating recognised Churches). Of course, like in the case of the Holocaust victims, the simple suffering and atrocity of death makes a martyr out of a human being. Most of the political prisoners were never explicitly urged to abjure faith, in spite of any apostasy being propagandistically speculated on. What they were really after both in prison and in the society at large was political faithfulness and the social mechanisms of promotion and exclusion were implicitly dealing with the religious issue, exiling it to the more secluded areas of the society – people would avoid going to christening services or wedding ceremonies or would choose rural, less exposed churches to hold such events. A notable exception to the rule was the experiment conducted at the Pitesti prison, where the apostasy was pursued by means of torture and terror. Apparently a success – the inmates ended up terrorising each other – the experiment could not be rolled out, perhaps also because of the special traits: Pitesti victims were young Iron Guard members, more mentally vulnerable because of the age and a special religious sensitivity (based on honour and sacrifice). But, then, who is a martyr? The one who refuses apostasy? Or the one who only has an unfair death? Or the one who suffers for a noble, not necessarily strictly religious, cause? People with some serious sins (including Jews massacres) on their conscience also died in the communist prisons. So the martyr is only the person who finishes his virtuous life in a gesture of extreme faithfulness? The thief on the cross who repented in extremis had not led exactly an enviable life and, yet, he opened the way to last-minute ‘conversion’.
The interest of a more serious debate on the martyrs in the communist period is an ethical one. Why do they deserve our appreciation and how an they be role-models? There is a concerning current phenomenon that can be seen in some Orthodox circles who try to build, based on certain examples of martyrdom, mystico-political movements. First of all, we must not forget that we all have our ‘martyrs’. The innumerable ‘heretics’ oppressed by Byzantium or by other states are also martyrs for those communities. Even the communist had their own ‘martyrs’, and so did the Nazi. Therefore, the discussion really needs the introduction of additional moral grids. We can sympathise with anyone’s grief, but the simple fact that a person suffered excessively or unjustly does not give an argument of prestige for that person’s ideas. The martyr can be an example of loyalty, but such loyalty must not turn into a pretext for future injustice. The gesture should rather make one think about the value of life-guiding ideas – what is it really worth living for? We should always wonder how much the ‘fulfilment’ of our aims would make other people suffer and help other. Massacres and martyrs ought to teach us a radical ethic realism: our actions have consequences – positive or dramatic. We should remain aware of that and stop blaming it all on ‘enemies’ or ‘blind destiny’.

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