The differences between jihad, heroism and martyrdom

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A memorial is seen at the Place de la Republique in Paris on 15 November. Photo: CNS/Lucie Brousseau
A memorial is seen at the Place de la Republique in Paris on 15 November. Photo: CNS/Lucie Brousseau

In the wake of the Paris bombings, in which the terrorists are reported to have used suicide vests, it is worth noting some important differences between the religions.

It is common to hear Islamic suicide bombers referred to as ‘martyrs’. The Arabic word is fedayeen, which means someone who sacrifices him or herself for a military objective. Like the Japanese kamikazes the point is not suicide, but to beat the infidels in battle. To willingly go to one’s death for a military outcome may certainly takes a kind of courage, but the Christian idea of martyrdom could not be more different.

Killing people by sacrificing oneself for a military objective may be potentially defensible from a Christian viewpoint, but it would never be considered martyrdom. A Christian may not seek martyrdom, indeed, the Council of Orange (441) decreed that young Christian men, apprehended and killed for defacing pagan shrines, were not to be included among the ranks of the martyrs.

These were hothead vandals, not martyrs.

There are distinct and very great differences between the suicide jihadist, the hero, and the Christian martyr. There is also a world of difference between their expected rewards. The suicide bomber who takes not only their own life, but those of other men and women, still expects a guaranteed heaven of pavilions, gardens, abundant foods and sexual satiety. St John of Damascus (676-749) called this expectation ‘a heaven for animals’.

The hero, on the other hand, to use Maurice Bowra’s description ‘are the champions of man’s ambition to pass beyond the oppressive limits of human frailty to a fuller and more vivid life, to win as far as possible a self-sufficient manhood, which refuses to admit that anything is too difficult for it, even in failure, provided it has made every effort of which it is capable’.  Their admirable reward is in the struggle itself, but the Christian martyr, like Jesus, the martyr of martyrs, is a sign of contradiction challenging the values of the world. The jihadist and the hero would both not understand him.

Even though the life of a Christian martyr may embrace some of the very same heroic characteristics, the Christian martyr is always an embarrassment. They are persecuted because they contradict the values of the age. Whereas an Islamic martyr is very much of this world, the Christian martyr may love this world because it is what God created, but he or she is in effect demonstrating, by enduring persecution, that they also belong to another world, a world and kingdom yet to come.

The reward of the martyr comes about from their whole reliance upon Christ, even in the face of death, and points with specific and active faith to Christ. Their expectation beyond their sacrificial death is union with God in the joy beyond description of love eternal.

That is why the Church always discourages anyone from seeking martyrdom. It is not something to be originated; it is something that is accepted when it comes. It should be a gift; an act of sacrifice that represents an imitation of Christ, who was, of course, the greatest martyr.

Martyrdom for Christians is redemptive, not an attempt to set the record straight. Islamic martyrdom, which is essentially a military act, is very different. It is planned and actively sought. Young men are sent to their deaths with promises of rewards in the afterlife: a failsafe way of securing paradise. As we saw in Paris, it is almost impossible to predict or to stop.

In Christianity there are promises about the afterlife, but they centre on what Christ will do – redemption through forgiveness – not from what the martyr might have done. Just as beatifying someone because they killed 100 people is absurd, so is the idea that one becomes a martyr just because they died in battle nonsense. But Christianity has not always been immune to such crude ‘deals’.

During the Crusades there were notions of guaranteed heaven in the afterlife for warring in this life. Indeed, Western Christianity’s crusade ideology was almost identical to Jihad. The warrior, killed fighting for the faith, was admitted to a guaranteed heaven. But in Christianity this was an aberration, and, significantly, such confusion did not occur in the Christian East. There, war was always regarded as wrong and an evil to be avoided.

Because of their antipathy to all religions, atheist critics of Islam and Islamism – and they are the loudest voices at the moment — find it difficult to discriminate between the unworldliness of Christianity and the anti-worldliness of Islamic jihad. To them it is all equally nonsensical.

So it is worth being reminded of how Christian martyrdom arose. In the religious and cultural world of Imperial Rome, Christians were outsiders, demonised and persecuted by the state as alien subversives. They were even thought to be enemies of the human race. Roman society emptied its psychological garbage on them, in much the same way that threatened power structures need moral scapegoats when their own certainties seem to be tottering or challenged.

Some Christians did, understandably, respond with violence by vandalising the shrines of the Roman gods. But these zealous religious vandals were never considered heroes. Still less were they thought of as martyrs. The genuine martyr never sought his or her fate. In the early Christian world the martyr was one who surrendered their life, even for the conversion of their enemies, once they had been apprehended for their faith. Like Christ himself, the martyr of martyrs, they are God’s witnesses precisely because they are victims.

It is not just Islam that uses crude ways of justifying violence. America’s recent wars, which have resulted in millions of deaths in the Middle East, have affinities with the Crusader ideology: the idea that violence is the only way to ‘get the bad guys’.

In Christianity, there are no bad guys and good guys. There are only people who have sought Christ’s forgiveness and those who have not. And it is only when one suffers for that belief that one becomes a martyr.