Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13:3, NRSV)

          When many a people group are all being slaughtered indiscriminately around the world, it may appear pointless to show any partisanship with any particular group. As Jared Walker, a good friend has remarked in conversation, “Yes there are Christians dying all over the world and that is terrible but there are also many other non-Christian people that are being slaughtered and that is equally as terrible.”* While not wishing to dispute this in the least, it does seem that within the Christian theological tradition a special importance or meaning is attached to the deaths of “…the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given…” (Rev. 6:9, NRSV). The special importance laid upon the deaths of these ones is noted by their name in Greek, μάρτυς, which means ‘witness’, also known in its anglicized form as martyr. With the recent upheaval in Mosul, Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and in particular the death and expulsion of almost the entire Christian population in the region- Emil Shimoun Nona, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholics in Mosul has estimated that from the time of the Iraq war of 2003 until now, the Christian population in Mosul has dwindled from 35, 000 to 3, 000- it may be appropriate to ask the right questions, from a Christian theological perspective, of such things as, what is the purpose of martyrdom? Why attach special importance or meaning to the deaths of Christians over others? Who qualifies as a martyr? Lastly, with what purpose do those Christians who are not persecuted strive to stand in solidarity with those who are?

          Let us take them in reverse order. We can see in the examples of twitter pictures and Facebook statuses, almost a secular version of prayer, in that people will send out messages in times of great desperation though no one may be listening with the hope that the messages will be answered “…because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7, NRSV).wearen-twitter-avitar2 The international attention to the very real and horrible persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East has produced some of the most benign but endearing forms of solidarity and protest, such as the social media campaign #WeAreN in which the ‘N’ is for Nasrani meaning ‘Nazarenes/Christians’, also the same Arabic letter tagged on the homes of Christians in Iraq (see left). When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews asks us to ‘remember’, how does the remembrance take place? Should we disparage the twitter campaigns or think of them like crosses on a necklace, an appropriate symbol? In an earlier essay, a distinction was made between protest and proclamation, in that protest is action that effectively breaks out of the matrix and means of that which one is protesting, whereas in proclamation a reminder of the larger vision of justice is given through ritual. The #WeAreN campaign is of the latter, and therefore we should recognize that it is a ritual much like prayer, but does the writer of the letter to the Hebrews have more than a ritual-like reminder in mind when he admonishes remembrance? Does he have something like stigmata in mind? Is this what Paul was talking about when he said, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Gal. 6:17, NRSV)? Controversially, it is argued here, that the remembrance is of more than a ritual reminder, though important that is, for it is also an awareness that your life is intimately bound up with those whom you are remembering. It is not only that you should remember them in twitter and prayer as if you are bound up with them though you sit at ease, it is also the awareness that as far as you share identity with them you are or will be bound up with them in some sense. What the death of these Christians in Iraq and elsewhere testify to is not only that there have been changes in the Middle Eastern political-cultural climate but that those changes will have repercussions around the world, as takes place all throughout history to people groups who claim a different and higher alliance than the state. The martyrdom of these Christians signals that an extremely important discussion will hopefully emerge concerning a group’s relationship to a state. But perhaps that for another time. The fate of Christians in Iraq will have consequences for Christians in Africa, throughout the Middle East, Europe, North America, and unto the ends of the Earth- for if the vine bled, and other branches are now bleeding, who will say whether or not your branch will bleed as well.

          What makes one a bleeding branch however is unfortunately a question that has become much muddled in Western discourse between those Western Christians who, having now lost their political dominance cry ‘persecution’, need to be told to ‘grow up’ to those Christians who may be ‘persecuted’ or ‘mocked’ not because of their faith but for other reasons such as they actually are criminals or actually are a great annoyance. Lost in this question, furthermore, are questions concerning statistics, such as Nelson Jones at the NewStatesman, who appears to think that challenging the claim that ‘Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world’ is a worthy endeavour. He says, “It’s almost certainly not the case that Christians are the most “persecuted” religious group in proportion to their numbers.” As if the importance of Christians being persecuted around the world was secured on the fact that more of them are being killed than Muslims. As if, that if there were fewer Christians being killed than Muslims, it would be a non-issue. But nonetheless he does raise an interesting argument that, “…by and large we are dealing with group rivalries, hatred of minorities, political struggles and only rarely a persecution based in the specifics of Christian theology.”

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this regard is an extremely interesting example, for while he is commemorated as a martyr by many for his opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer himself understood that if his blood were to bleed, it would not be an innocent martyr’s death that he would receive, but rather, in speaking about himself and his comrades in the Abwehr, “…the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness.”** Bonhoeffer understood that if he were to die a convicted criminal, for the crime of attempting to assassinate a political leader, that he would not die a martyr’s death. The death of a Christian by another does not automatically  that mean in their death they had become a martyr. Likewise if a Christian in Iraq were to be killed in a crossfire, as tragic as it is, it would not mean that they were a martyr. Rather, going back to the original name, a martyr is one who is killed for being a witness. When then the ‘N’ is sprayed painted on their houses, it testifies to the fact that the homes of those being killed belonged to those who were witnesses to the crucified and risen Nazarene. They were not killed merely because they did not fit the social order, they were not killed out of some accident, they were not killed because they were grouped in with other religious minorities, they were killed precisely because they were Christians.*** For Jones to think that Christians being persecuted by secular and Islamic governments alike has nothing to do with the content of Christian theology is simply non-sense from someone who clearly cannot understand why anyone would possibly fight over doctrines or ‘beliefs’ let alone die for them.

          Now that we have established what purpose there would be in remembering the persecution of Christians in Iraq, and elsewhere, in solidarity with them, and what qualifies a martyr, we’re still left with the question- why remember or pay special regard to the deaths of Christians specifically? What makes it different than remembering any other atrocity done to any other people group? It is here where some ancient Church wisdom, so often neglected, is of such use to us. St. Bede, in his A History of the English Church and People (early 8th century), records Pope Gregory’s response to St. Augustine’s fifth question concerning incest in the late 6th century, and has Pope Gregory recount John the Baptist’s protest of such marriages against the rulers of Judea, saying of his death,

“For which thing also John the Baptist was beheaded, and obtained the crown of holy martyrdom. For, though he was not ordered to deny Christ, and it was not for confessing Christ that he was killed, yet inasmuch as the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, said, “I am the Truth,” because John was killed for the truth, he also shed his blood for Christ.” (Chapter 27)

What an astonishing mode of reasoning is employed here! Gregory wishes to anoint John the Baptist a martyr but in knowing that John was killed because of his protest against incestuous marriages within the royal family, argues that because John was killed for the truth that that equalled being killed for the sake of Christ. Dying for the sake of truth, justice, peace, and love are not separated categories from dying for the cause of Christ, as if being a Christian and dying a martyr’s death was a matter of dying for metaphysical beliefs about the afterlife. The death of a Christian imitates the death of Christ in exactly as it exposes the depths of human sinfulness in how we create entire systems that are dependent upon the death of victims, as it exposes that the human desire to become gods inevitably becomes evil in craving to kill even the most innocent.+

          In that sense, to give special recognition to those who die in the name of Christ in the Christian tradition is not to privilege the deaths of them over others, or to say that their deaths were of some value, or that they were more valuable than other people, or even that we need to save Christians from their persecution at the expense or in precedence of saving other groups from their persecution but rather that the death of a Christian testifies to the death of Christ, and the death of Christ was the event that saved all of humanity from these systems of oppression, death, sin, and destruction. Christ, in the Christian tradition, died for many reasons but one of which was to expose empire and make a mockery of their whole system of killing enemies by holding charges of guilt over peoples heads, for “…erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:14-15, NRSV).

          To end here then, we should honour and remember the life of the Professor of law at the University of Mosul Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, who stood up against the ISIS’s persecution of Christians, believing that it went against what God had commanded in the Islamic faith. While he did not die in the name of Christ, in the Christian tradition we cannot but recognize that he, like John the Baptist before him, died for the truth, and in dying for the truth he also shed his blood for Christ.


* Slight paraphrase from a personal conversation.

** Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress Press, 2000), 795

*** On a personal note, I find it somewhat disgusting the attempts by some Evangelicals to disassociate themselves from the title of ‘Christian’ because of some negative connotations the word has accumulated throughout our culture. At a time when myriads are being killed for being identified as such, some in the Evangelical community cowardly step away from the same title because it makes them uncomfortable at parties. Grow-Up, and consider yourselves lucky that you are merely being mocked and stereotyped. 

Richard Bauckham makes a most excellent point in this regard (though my dissertation would substitute ‘Rome’ for ‘Jerusalem’, the issue is still the same), in commenting on Revelation 18:24, when he says, “Rome is indicted not only for the martyrdom of Christians, but also for the slaughter of all the innocent victims of its murderous policies. The verse expresses a sense of solidarity between the Christian martyrs and all whose lives were the price of Rome’s acquisition and maintenance of power.” – Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. 1st Edition. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1993., 349.