Being a “martyr” is not like when your mom has to drive you to band practice and she makes everyone notice what a wonderful sacrifice she is making. At least that is not what being a martyr meant to the Bible writers and the early Christians. It is not the same as a martyr complex.
The word martyr derives from the Greek word for witness. When Jesus says to his disciples – “You will be my witnesses,” he could have been translated, “You will be my martyrs.” When governments and mobs started killing Jesus-followers for witnessing to what they had seen, heard and were experiencing, the dying part of being a martyr got attached to the word. Now all we think about martyrs is that they are dying for a cause.
Dying for a cause appeals to many people, like Islamic radicals driving a truck load of explosives into something or a band of marines saving their brothers. Dying for the cause can seem pretty exciting. When Paul was teaching the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts he confronted a group of people he had to correct about such enthusiasm. They were similar to the anti-disciples, here:
The church at Corinth had a faction in it which tended to care more about the gifts they received from God than they did about the intended recipients. They liked being radical for the sake of it. They were sort of like teenagers who are so thrilled to drive the car fast they don’t mind who dies in the process.
Some of the Christians in Corinth cared more about receiving the powerful gifts of the Spirit than they cared for the Giver of the gifts. It was like you might have reacted last Christmas when you had opened your sixth present and forgot to look at the tag that said who gave it to you. When it came to the exciting new possibilities of exercising the power of the Holy Spirit, some in the Corinthian church loved the expression of power. And some of them didn’t mind bearing witness to how great they were – even greater than Paul who brought them the news of God’s great gift in Jesus!
Paul’s corrective to those seeking power
In between chapters 12 and 14 of the first letter to the Corinthian church, right in the middle of his teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, Paul inserts a beautiful chapter about love. At the beginning he writes: If I…surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Surrendering one’s body to the flames might be considered another spiritual gift: the gift of martyrdom [link to Bible studies about them all]. Since Paul is talking about spiritual gifts, that’s always sounded right to me – and I know of people with that gift. Some of the Corinthians probably liked that idea of facing danger for their faith. They liked to be the ones to look like powerful witnesses of God’s work in the world. They wouldn’t mind going out in a firefight.
But those bold members of the church would most likely have expected to win a firefight. That kind of lust for power, competition to be the best, to be the most spiritual, to be the best looking Christian is still a problem in the church as a whole. At least I think it is a problem to see the church in competition with the Muslims for market share, or something, as if life were a mall and we want to be Nordstroms not the Dollar Store. In some famous cases, like the notorious Buddhist Thich Quang Duc, one might leap into the flames to burn away the dross and to etherialize one’s spirit, making a powerful point in the process. People do such things.
This lust for surrendering one’s body to the flames, for being a spectacular witness, is probably less a problem in Circle of Hope than it was in the Corinthian Church. In Circle of Hope most of us love love, and we are good at it. I think we are more likely to read the love chapter and de-emphasize chapters 12 and 14 as being “a bit much.” We will sacrifice almost anything to get love and we feel terrible if anyone says we are not giving enough. We’ll even sacrifice the truth to be seen as loving; we might even sacrifice Jesus if he got too scary looking.
We don’t fight, we don’t even want to have strong opinions, because we know that people won’t think we love them, worse yet, they won’t like us. So Paul would probably change chapter 13 for us: “Wait a minute, God may give it to you to surrender yourself to the flames some day as a witness for the truth. You may need to get into trouble with people who don’t like Jesus.” He might re-write the line for us: If I say I have love but never surrender my body to the flames, what kind of love is it?”
Our transhistorical body blog often pinches this general spirit among us. I hope we never forget how to say “Ouch!” We try to honor the martyrs who showed us how to keep faith in confusing, oppressive times so we can remember how to do it. To name three recent examples: March 24 — Oscar Romero, April 4 – Martin Luther King Jr., April 9 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
These disciples were loving and well loved. But they certainly got themselves into trouble, didn’t they? They were martyrs for witnessing to the inconvenient truths of the gospel. Just like Jesus did, they got into trouble when they crossed the boundaries of class, ethnicity, tradition, politics and power. They insisted that Christ is all and there is no life unless he is in all and powerful people felt threatened and responded as powerful people often do. I am pondering whether we have a such a vision worth dying for or at least worth dying trying for, like our great ancestors in the faith. Will we share our revelation with love or will we let it be corrupted as we succumb to the constant drumbeat to support the powermongers or at least maintain as much personal power as we can?