Somewhat surprisingly, the word 'martyr' (from Greek) originally just meant somebody who had witnessed something and was mindful about it. The thoughtfulness was sincere, but nothing remarkable enough to result in persecution. Christians and adherents of other religions, Communists and members of other ideologies, have adopted the word for those special people who displayed unusually strong faith in the face of adversity, to the point they would rather suffer a painful death than renounce their beliefs.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, there have been relatively few takers for this honour.
Consequently in religion at least, martyrdom has become almost synonymous to sainthood for fellow believers, or at least worthy of sincere reverence.
Monuments are erected in the martyr's honour, often in the form of a cross, even though relatively few martyrs have been crucified. Others have been stoned to death, beheaded, speared, beaten, hanged, drowned, burnt at a stake and more recently, executed by firing squad and other 'humane' methods.
Manchester Martyrs' Cross
one of many Celtic Crosses
(Click photo to enlarge)
Erecting crosses and other monuments in public places (see Market Cross) has been vogue for the past few hundred years, especially in Europe, and many are dedicated to martyrs. Although the cross is a Christian symbol, the martyrdom has usually been more 'political' than 'religious'.
The Manchester Martyrs' Cross in England, is a good example of that.
Some Yorkshiremen might cynically suggest that all Mancunians are martyrs for just being there! The truth is, however, that the Manchester Martyrs' Cross was erected by local Roman Catholics in honour of William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien, who were publicly hanged in 1867 for manslaughter and facilitating the escape of convicted Fenian leaders.
The authorities deemed them terrorists and the local Irish population considered them to be heroes. Neither party suggested the three men died for their Catholic faith yet all three became known as martyrs.
Oxford Martyrs' Cross
set in the road by Balliol College
Similarly political was the execution 200 km south of Manchester in Oxford, where we find cobble stones set in the road and known as the Oxford Martyrs' Cross.
This is in memory of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of London Nicholas Ridley and Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer. Unlike the Manchester Catholics who were hanged by Protestants, these were Protestant clergy burnt at the stake by Catholics (1553).
We should remember that at the time of the Protestant Reformation cruel punishment and the death penalty were meted out for relatively trivial offences. In 15th century England capital punishment was so common that Parliament placed an 'Act for the Burning of Heretics' on the statute book.
In Manchester and in Oxford, both the executed and executioners were nominally Christian. The death sentence was passed for criminal activities, treason and sedition. There was no persecution for a spiritual faith and neither Catholic nor Protestant church doctrine encourages criminal activities, treason and sedition. They died for activities resulting from their belief in what they were doing was right and a Divine Will; hence the entitlement to be called 'martyr'.
Maqhamusela Khanyile's Cross
Photo ©uMlalazi Tourism Association
(Click photo to enlarge)
To find a martyr who died for their Christian faith, we must look further afield to cultures which are not predominantly Christian.
About 9,300 km south of Oxford is Eshowe in Zululand. Here Maqhamusela Khanyile's Cross is in memory of South Africa's first Christian martyr, speared to death in 1877, for refusing to renounce his faith and bow down to the Zulu King Cetewayo and join his army.
There is little doubt that the king felt his power was threatened by Maqhamusela and the Norwegian missionaries spreading Christianity; just as Norway currently feels they would lose control of their natural resources and wealth if they accepted the invitation to join the EU.
Three hundred years before that, 12,500 km east-northeast in Nagasaki, Japan, 26 Christians were crucified in 1597. This was not simply conflict with Japanese Shinto or Buddhism; rather there was a justifiable fear that the Europeans were using religion to gain an economic and military foothold in Asia to expand empires.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of martyrs elsewhere in Asia, in Africa and in the Americas, who are remembered through crosses, paintings, stained glass windows, churches and feast days.
And there will be hundreds if not thousands more, until the world recognises that the Christian faith and the message of salvation means no harm to anyone. Love is only a threat to evil.
Finally, one other facet of martyrdom:
Giving up your life for your faith does not necessarily mean accepting death. True martyrdom is devoting one's life to the service of God, which includes devoting one's life to the service of humanity.
Matthew the Evangelist and Thomas were speared to death.
James the Just clubbed to death after being crucified and stoned and Mark was dragged along the ground until he died.
Luke the Evangelist was hanged.
St. Clement was drowned.