Martyrdom and Christian faith

January 30th, 2017


In the early 1950s, Japanese writer Shusaku Endo encountered an exhibit in the art museum in Nagasaki that challenged him and inspired him to write the book that’s considered to be his masterpiece. That piece of art was a simple wooden box with a bronze engraving of Christ on the cross. What truly captivated Endo was that the image had been rubbed smooth and was surrounded by the black marks of footprints where hundreds of feet had trampled on it long ago.

The item Endo saw was called a fumie. It had been created in the 17th century during a severe persecution of Christians in Japan. The footprints on the image were from peasants who were given a choice: Trample on it and renounce their faith, or face torture and death. Endo, who had been baptized a Roman Catholic Christian at the age of 11, asked himself, Would I, too, have trampled on the image?

The book that Endo wrote after this encounter, Silence, was published in 1966. It tells the story of two Portuguese missionaries who travel to Japan during the height of the persecution. One of them, Sebastian Rodrigues, writes letters to his superiors, and these form the bulk of the narrative. It’s a life of danger and secrecy until betrayal leads to arrest.

Throughout the book, a question hangs over the story: Would the missionaries remain steadfast in the face of their captors; or would they apostatize, or renounce their faith, as their former mentor and predecessor in the Japanese mission, Christovao Ferreira, is rumored to have done? In the end, the crisis for Rodrigues is even more intense than he could’ve imagined. He’s ordered to trample on a fumie and renounce his faith, not to save himself from torture and death, but to save three peasants who will be tortured until he steps on the image.


Among the many issues provoked by the novel — and now the movieSilence, from questions about how the gospel is presented and received in different cultures to questions of class (most of the Christians the missionaries encounter are peasants in small villages), the most dramatic questions raised include those of suffering and martyrdom.

What is a martyr? The word is derived from a Greek term, martus, meaning witness. More specifically, it refers to a witness who “testifies to a fact of which he [or she] has knowledge from personal observation.” In this sense, all of the apostles were called to be martyrs. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Fairly quickly, within the lifetime of the apostles, the word began to mean more than a generic type of witnessing. Revelation 2:13 describes Antipas, whom Jesus calls “my faithful witness,” and says that Antipas “was killed among you, where Satan lives.” Later, in Revelation 6:9, John says he “saw under the altar those who had been slaughtered on account of the word of God and the witness they had given.” In the second century, the term martyr came to refer almost exclusively to those who had paid the ultimate price as a witness to their faith.

The church honors martyrs

The Christian church has honored martyrs from the beginning. During the persecutions of the Roman Empire, families of those who had been martyred were often permitted to bury the remains, and the gravesites were often considered sacred. Chapels have been found in the catacombs, and churches have been built over sites reputed to be the tombs of martyrs. For example, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is reputedly built over the tomb of the apostle Peter.

Early Christians also celebrated the anniversaries of martyrs’ deaths, “held at the grave of the deceased with prayer, oblations, Communion, and a reading of the martyr’s history of suffering and death,” according to Christian History magazine. Martyrdom was considered such an honor that the church had to act against the phenomenon of “volunteering,” wherein Christians actively sought to be killed for their faith. Ignatius of Antioch, a first-century bishop, wrote letters to the various churches along his route to Rome to be tried and martyred, asking them to take no action to prevent his death because he wished to be an “imitator of the passion of Christ, my God.”

Modern-day martyrs

Though Christians might not have the same attitude toward martyrdom as in the early church, persecution and martyrdom still exist as a problem for the church today. In 2015, videos of members of the group Islamic State executing Christians were reported on by major news networks, drawing attention to the plight of Christians in some areas of the Middle East. Exactly how many Christian martyrs there have been, however, is harder to pin down than one might expect. 

In 2012, the number of Christians martyred was either 1,200, as some groups reported, or over 100,000, as others reported. The disparity, it turns out, is because some groups define a martyr differently than others. Some groups count as martyrs those who are killed for their ethnicity, because ethnicity and religion are closely aligned in some areas.

“Cultural Christians killed in political or ethnic conflicts are not necessarily witnessing for their faith. Thus, they shouldn’t be counted as martyrs,” argues Nik Ripken of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, who investigated reports of martyrdom but was unable to substantiate many. There’s a concern for an accurate total, as underreporting may lead to little attention being paid to the issue; but defining it too broadly might dilute the term in a way that devalues, in a sense, the deaths of those killed specifically for bearing witness to their faith.

Confronted by martyrdom

What questions does martyrdom raise for contemporary Christians? Silence, both the novel and the movie, provokes one major question: Why does God seem silent in the face of suffering? Martin Scorsese, in the foreword he wrote for the 2016 Picador Modern Classic publication of the novel, says, “[God] is always present . . . even in His silence.”

This insight can be gleaned from the novel, but the presence of God would still be difficult to discern in the midst of suffering. The Book of Revelation, particularly in the messages to the churches detailed in Chapters 2 and 3, however, describes the reward that’s held out for those who suffer persecution “even to the point of death,” which is “the crown of life” (2:10). “Those who emerge victorious,” it says, will be made “pillars in the temple of my God, and they will never leave it” (3:12).

Enduring suffering and hardship, then, leads to a great reward. But even with such promises, it’s difficult to remain steadfast with the prospect of suffering and death. What if someone threatened with suffering or with the suffering of others recants their faith? This question has been with the church as long as there have been martyrs.

What can Christians do to support those suffering persecution and in danger of being martyred? The Reverend Jack Amick, top executive for international disaster response of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), urges church members “not to forget about Syria and Iraq [where much of the hardship facing Christians is taking place] and to pray weekly for peace and an end to violent conflict around the world.”

UMCOR and organizations like it have a presence in many parts of the world where Christians are suffering persecution. Amick points out that though hearing about the trials these Christians are facing may break our hearts, “all human suffering should break our hearts such that we take action regardless of human divisions and labels of race, creed, religion.” Supporting the work of organizations like UMCOR, with prayer and finances, could be a concrete step to show those who suffer that God is present to them, even if God seems silent.

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