It comes from the Greek word μαρτυρια, meaning “witness”. It’s one of the four characteristics of Orthodox Christianity: liturgía “worship” literally “the people’s work”, dhiakonía “servanthood”, martyría “witness”, and kinonía “fellowship”.
A modern addition to this foursquare scheme is paidheía “instruction”.
It used to be considered sufficient that the idhiótes, that is, the laity, were educated and edified by the original four. But the modernist Orthodox wants to make sure the world understands that we are “educated” too. “Nobody who speaks only Greeks is anybody!” as Spiro exclaimed in the film My Family and Other Animals.
Back to martyrdom.
Muslims commit it,
Christians suffer it.
A Muslim terrorist firmly believes in the reward of paradise and seventy-two black-eyed virgins if he commits martyrdom by, for example, strapping a bomb to himself, walking into a crowd of “enemies of Allah”,
and blowing himself and them up.
A Christian who suffers martyrdom
at the hands of unbelievers
because of his testimony,
his witness to Jesus as Lord and Savior, firmly believes that Christ will stand up for him, based on His word of promise, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32 NASB)
The Christian doesn’t know the particulars or details of the reward, if you can call it such (though Jesus does, cf. Matthew 10:42), but he believes in it just as firmly, and with good reason.
“The Word of God says so.”
So, martyrdom means “witness”.
It seems strange that witness can be committed as an act of violence towards oneself and others by the followers of Muhammad, and at the same time suffered as violence committed against oneself by others. But that’s how it is. Has it always been this way?
Have there been Muslim martyrs who suffered rather than committed martyrdom?
Well, yes, of course there have. Think of the Crusades, when Roman Catholic armies attacked the Muslim states of the Near East. Of course, they were only trying to win back what the Muslims had conquered in the first place. Maybe that’s not a good example.
How about the case of Mansur al-Hallaj (AD 858-922), who was martyred for his faith? Well, yes, it was by his fellow Muslims. He wanted to testify of his relationship with God to others, even at the price of his own life. He also referred to the martyrdom of Christ, saying he also wanted to die ‘in the supreme confession of the cross’. Many Muslims of his time criticized him as a crypto-Christian for distorting the monotheistic revelation in a Christian way. Well, maybe that’s not a good example either.
Have there ever been Christians who committed martyrdom?
Well, again I think you could cite the Crusaders, though reliable contemporary sources, Francesco of Assisi for example, expressed the opinion that the Crusaders needed Christ more than the Saracens did, so that’s probably not a good example.
I think the closest I can come to finding a Christian equivalent to ‘committing martyrdom’ is the acts of the Greek neo-martyrs during the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. These were (usually) men who had gotten into trouble with the Turks, but who escaped punishment, fled and lived in hiding. Later, after repenting for their apostasy (most of them had been forced to become Muslims, and then had backslid), they would return to the places where they had denied Christ and ‘commit martyrdom’ by boldly confessing Christ and denouncing Muhammad in front of Turkish authorities, who then had them executed (not without trying to induce them to recant, rejoin the Muslim fold, and be pardoned). They could have stayed in hiding (and most former apostates did), but something inside these men couldn’t be silenced. Perhaps they read the passage in Matthew, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men…”
Are we any closer to defining martyrdom?
I think not. What martyrdom really is can be learned only by following Jesus, going where He goes, doing what He does. Here’s what martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about some aspects of martyrdom:
Neither failure nor hostility can weaken the messenger’s conviction that he has been sent by Jesus. That his word may be their strength, their stay and their comfort, Jesus repeats it. ‘Behold, I send you.’ For this is no way they have chosen themselves, no undertaking of their own. It is, in the strict sense of the word, a mission. With this the Lord promises them his abiding presence, even when they find themselves as sheep among wolves, defenceless, powerless, sore pressed and beset with great danger. Nothing can happen to them without Jesus knowing of it. ‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’
… It is not our judgment of the situation which can show us what is wise, but only the truth of the Word of God. Here alone lies the promise of God’s faithfulness and help. It will always be true that the wisest course for the disciple is always to abide solely by the Word of God in all simplicity.
… The return of Jesus will take place suddenly. That fact is more certain than that we shall be able to finish our work in his service, more certain than our own death. This assurance that in their suffering they will be as their Master is the greatest consolation the messengers of Jesus have. As is the Master, so shall the disciple be, and as the Lord, so the servant. If they called Jesus a devil, how much more shall they call the servants of his household devils. Thus Jesus will be with them, and they will be in all things like unto him.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyr, 1945)
The Cost of Discipleship,
Ch. 24 The Suffering of the Messengers