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December 8, 2022

The martyrs

Before speaking about a miraculous resurrection, Christian Easter speaks about crucifixion. Since we are talking about a victim sentenced for religious issues, Jesus is the first Christian martyr. Of course, he is not the first martyr in history – each religion has its martyrs. He is not even the only “god” killed and resurrected – we can somewhat compare it to the myth of Dionysus. Nevertheless, the crucifixion of the Son of God fundamentally changed the perception of martyrdom. Christianity was born as a religion of martyrs, since it was perceived with hostility both by the Jews and the pagans. Subsequent to the Roman Empire adopting Christianity, the number of martyrs grew especially in the countries that were engage in conflict with it or with other future Christian states. But many Christian communities declared heretical had many martyrs of their own too, not to mention those oppressed for being non-Christians, such as the Jews or Muslims. In other words, Christianity significantly empowered martyrdom in the history of humanity.

However, what is a martyr? In principle, someone who does not renege his/her religious belief, not even when threatened with torture or execution. Who prefers pain or death over betraying his/her God. Who does not fight his oppressor but only bears other people’s violence. If today’s Islamists consider themselves martyrs too, such an understanding of the term is far from the Christian one. Truth is that martyrdom was not always understood the same way throughout Christian history either. And the martyrdom of others was not placed on the same plane with the martyrdom of the members of their own communities – the existence of two different standards of judgment was (and is) a veritable moral scandal for some. But beyond these variations of interpretation, a martyr is mostly one who suffers like Jesus suffered on the cross. But let’s not imagine that such martyrdom is solely an act of faith and courage. The memory of martyrs is much more significant – the effects of their deaths do not concern solely the salvation of their souls. Martyrdom is a serious political issue. To better understand this culture of martyrdom, we have at our disposal Martin Scorsese’s latest film – ‘Silence,’ based on the novel of the same name written by Japan’s Shusaku Endo. Although the screenplay remains extremely faithful to the book, the film pales before the writer’s extremely refined art, which is of an almost “calligraphic” elegance, a remarkable art of addressing the issue. The novel concerns the failure of Catholic missionarism in medieval Japan, after a promising start. The Japanese political elite pushed back violently, persecuting the Japanese who converted to Christianity and ruthlessly hunting down the missionary monks. The hero of the novel is an apostate, a missionary who, after risking his life to clandestinely enter the country, experiences a profound crisis of conscience and in the end, in a special context, accepts to formally renounce his faith, even though deep down he will remain a Christian. Shusaku Edo’s book is not just a passionate historical novel, but also a provocative meditation on faith, suffering and martyrdom. During his clandestine stay, the missionary is amazed by the martyrdom of many extremely poor Japanese and by their Christian fervour in general. He will eventually give in not out of cowardice – the peasant that betrays him, a kind of a new Judas, is the coward who abandons his faith numerous times despite regretting it each time and wishing to be forgiven. The missionary gives in just like his master, an older missionary; they both give in faced with the argument skilfully manoeuvred by the Japanese “inquisitor” who saw Christian priests more useful as apostates than as martyrs. They give in to save others from torture, they give in because they cannot go through with causing other people’s martyrdom. After all, any missionary is, potentially, the “father” of many martyrs. One of his main lessons is loyalty to God, at any price. After all, his best apprentices will be precisely the martyrs.

The apostate missionary will not renege the virtue of martyrdom, but will add to it a special category, that of the apostate (insincere, despite the appearances) who has an extremely heavy cross to bear. It’s the opposite of the ego that is undeniably included in the victories of the martyrs, seen as heroes above heroes who use weapons. It’s the humility of those who gave up both the fight without weapons and the implicit propagation of violence through martyrdom. But who did not abandon God, deep down. Their inner torment can be likened – although some find it a blasphemy – to that of the martyrs. At any rate, a different kind of martyrdom.


Photo: Yôsuke Kubozuka and Andrew Garfield in Silence (2016)

Photo source: www.imdb.com

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