Deeply moved by some news here in the United Kingdom, I turn aside from my journey through Matthew’s Gospel. Last week three teenage Muslim girls slipped out of this country on a plane to Turkey. Their destination: ‘Islamic State’ in Syria/Iraq’. In 2013 another girl from the same school in east London had done the same telling her parents, “I will see you on the day of judgement. I will take you to heaven. I will hold your hand…..I want to become a martyr.” Such tender dedication moves me deeply. The media in this country see these connected events purely in terms of brainwashing but there is surely a more important underlying crisis here. It is the crisis of faith, vision and personal identity.
In the Greek scriptures of the Christian tradition the word martyr means simply ‘witness’, as in a court of law for example. Or when the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians says in chapter 4 verse 17, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord….” he is using the Greek word ‘martyr’. Some of those first Christians (like Stephen), killed because of their faith, were called ‘witnesses’ – martyrs. Later, during widespread persecution of Christians by Roman authorities, a problem arose. Some had begun to seek martyrdom actively because it had become a badge of honour. Some even claimed that it was the only way to get to heaven. They had to be reminded of the words of the apostle Paul in the famous chapter 13 of his letter to Christians in Corinth: “….if I give my body to be burned but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In those early centuries of Christianity martyrdom was never achieved by killing anybody, only by being killed because of one’s witness to one’s faith. Only later did Christians start killing one another because of profound disagreements about how to be a true believer. Then, of course, during the crusades to liberate the Holy Land it was Muslims who were being martyred. Today Christians are being martyred in the middle east, while Shia and Sunni Muslims martyr one another. One group’s heretic is the other’s martyr.
So to put it very mildly, ‘martyrdom’ is a tricky subject!! Personally, I sometimes feel insignificant. I feel I ought to be a better Christian, a better more loving person. I can find myself thinking, ‘you ought to sell all your possessions and go and help those in some poverty stricken country’. The voice in my head goes on, ‘Look at you! Call yourself a Christian?! It’s all very well for you in this safe, secure, well off country. If you really believed……’
‘If I really believed’; then what? Then perhaps I would recognize that the voice in my head may not be the call of God. It may be my sense of guilt, my feeling of being a powerless nobody in a very imperfect society. Perhaps the voice in my head wants me to do something dramatic to satisfy my personal sense of being inadequate. Perhaps the voice doesn’t want me to see the real failure, so beautifully expressed in that 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. ‘If I have not love, I am nothing.’
Here I am, a Christian in my 84th year and I think I have something in common with those teenage Muslim girls who find the idea of martyrdom attractive. We live in a broken society and we can feel powerless to make it a better place. The allure of martyrdom as an antidote to personal meaningless and powerlessness can be very strong for an idealistic young person. It takes a degree of wisdom that few teenagers can possibly have yet developed to discern the way forward. They need the prayerful support of older and wiser heads in their community who also recognize the impetus of the young to make a difference in a world that some of their elders have messed up.