Martyrdom

Are there occurrences when it is nothing more than suicide?

The Stoning of St Stephen, by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669

This post was inspired by Sister Catherine Wybourne (@Digitalnun), writing about martyrs on the iBenedictines blog, due to a small misunderstanding of a comment I placed.

My dictionary defines a martyr as someone who is put to death for their belief(s). It is on the basis of this definition that I write. I do not intend that anything in this post should contradict the Christian churches’ view that martyrdom should never be sought or provoked.

In my opinion, the key phrase is “put to death”, by which I mean killed by some other person or sect but not them-self having deliberately sought death for their belief or cause, to, respectively, promote or advance it. A person may know, or come to know, that they will be put to death, executed for their belief but that is not the same as seeking or provoking it. Accepting is neither seeking or provoking.

In contrast, today we hear news reports of people that openly state that they will, or intend to become martyrs for their cause, religion or belief but if you intend to die, is it martyrdom or merely suicide? My opinion is that, that is suicide. It might be suicide in a cause but it is still nevertheless just suicide.

What about a person who not only sets out to die, is the instrument of their own demise, such as a suicide bomber, albeit that they might take or intend to take the lives of others with their own, can that ever be martyrdom?

The Wikipedia entry for martyr frequently associates martyrdom with heroism. Whilst that might be so in a few instances, the majority of martyrs were not heroes and I disagree with the Wikipedia entry in that respect. A hero is someone who knowingly and deliberately faces danger for the safety of someone else.

The first recorded Martyr is (St.) Stephen (Acts ch’s 6 & 7), the apostle of Jesus. He debated with ‘holy men’ and was accused by the Sanhedrin of blasphemy, for which the penalty was death by stoning.

I chose to cite a Christian martyr as an example. A all the major, and probably minor, religions have their own and although I chose a religious martyr, there are political martyrs too. 

Regardless of the reason for martyrdom, my essential point is that I do not believe anyone who wants to be seen as a martyr can ever be one in the true sense of the word.

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