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World Association of International Studies

Post Martyrdom Across Religions
Created by John Eipper on 04/30/21 11:12 AM

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Martyrdom Across Religions (Edward Jajko, USA, 04/30/21 11:12 am)

On April 21st, John E wrote that WAIS has never discussed martyrdom, thereby tacitly inviting discussion.

The concept and the fact of martyrdom have been constants in my life since childhood. I had a strict Roman Catholic schooling back in Philadelphia, and the Felician Sisters and the archdiocesan priests of the Parish of St. Laurentius frequently brought up the names and stories of holy martyrs. They were to serve as exemplars of dedication to the Faith and of the virtue of self-sacrifice.

I grew up during and after WWII, and can recall the many houses with gold star emblems in their windows, as well as men with missing limbs and surgical attempts to mend or replace shattered faces. Is it martyrdom when life and body have not necessarily been volunteered for a cause, but stolen? At the same time, the Four Chaplains were offered as an exemplar of self-sacrifice.

One story that has stuck in my head for 70 or more years, having been told vividly by at least one nun, was that of the Forty Martyrs (in Wikipedia, Forty Martyrs of Sebaste).

Once I entered the then Saint Joseph's College High School, now Saint Joseph's Preparatory School--but called even then St. Joe's Prep or simply The Prep--the context changed. We learned about Jesuit martyrs, among them men like St. Isaac Jogues, martyred by Iroquois.

Later still, I learned about modern martyrs, victims of the Germans in WWII, among them Janusz Korczak, who chose to accompany his class of pupils to an uncertain fate that turned out to be their annihilation, and Saint Brother Maksymilian Kolbe O.F.M. who, when the Germans were selecting victims for a firing squad, had himself substituted for one of the prisoners who had been chosen, a married man with children.

Still later, I learned about Muslim martyrs--shahid, shuhada'. Those killed in action against Israel, or for Alqaeda or the Islamic State, are routinely buried as "shaheed." Arabic does something that English does not. In English, we tend to forget the root meanings of our Latin and Greek vocabulary. Thus, a martyr is someone who dies for a cause (or, colloquially, a complainer). Arabic sticks closer to original meanings. The root shin-ha-da that gives the noun شهداء شهيد shahid, shuhada' has the meaning of "witness." The simple Credo of Islam, There is no god except God; Muhammad is the messenger of God, is called the shahadah, the testimony or witness.

The root is Greek μαρτυρος, martyros, which does not mean "one who dies for a cause" but "witness."

But back to martyrdom as self-sacrifice: there is in scientific thinking the concept of altruistic sacrifice, as when ants die to protect their queen and eggs, or a parent dies to save a child. Martyrdom, self-sacrifice, for a cause, would seem to be an extension of this altruism. The soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his buddies is no less a martyr than the canonized saint.

JE comments:  I bet few of us knew this!  The common "witness" etymology of martyrdom in both the Christian and Muslim traditions is far from intuitive.  Quite the contrary, we assume the witness is the one who lives, such as when Raskolnikov murdered the pawnbroker's sister to "leave no witnesses."

And WAIS has never honored the Four Chaplains, all of whom surrendered their life vests to others when their ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1943.  The four were two Protestant pastors, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi.  They exemplified ecumenical harmony in its sublimest form.

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