Orthodox America

  Russia's New Martyrs: Politically Incorrect?

Many converts have been inspired by Russia's New Martyrs.  Sadly, outside the Orthodox community they are virtually unknown.  As First Things' editor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus perceptively suggests, the reason for this may be something other than lack of information.

There is little disputing the fact that this, above all others, has been the century of Christian martyrdom.  Yet that reality receives curiously little attention among contemporary Christians.  Presbyterian writer Herbert Schlossberg has recently discussed this phenomenon in A Fragrance of Oppression: The Church and Its Persecutors, and offers some suggestive ideas about this strange neglect.  Additional dynamics, one suspects, are in play.  For instance, in theologies of past decades the prophetic, the radical, and the liberationist all came in for great attention. Priests and nuns killed for their involvement in various social justice struggles in Latin America have received a great deal of attention  But there seems to be an ideological test for the veneration of martyrs.

Those killed under Hitler, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are celebrated.  It is respectable, indeed required, to be anti-Nazi.  But for forty-plus years anticommunism was suspect, and of course many more Christians were killed by the Communists for begin Christian than by the Nazis.  The undeniable fact is that during the Cold War those in the West who raised the question of the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain were viewed as reactionary.  Unlike, say, the Jesuits of El Salvador who were struggling for a revolutionary new order, the Christians massacred by the Communists were resisting what presented itself as the revolutionary new order. They failed the test of being progressive martyrs.  The twentieth-century martyrology, such as it is, is a canon of the politically correct.  There are martyrs, and then there are "politically interesting" martyrs. There is a certain sniffing condescension toward those who simply died for the faith, without some further and redeeming political merit.  The innumerable martyrs buried under the snows of Siberia have gone largely unremarked, at least among Christians in the West.  And today not much notice is paid the brutally persecuted Christians in the south of the Sudan, or the Copts in Egypt.  Millions of Christians are involved in just these two instances, and they are under attack because they are Christians. Scholars who attend to the statistics of world Christianity tell us that some 300,000 Christians each year are killed for being Christians.  We are not quite sure how they arrive at that figure, but there is no doubt that attention to martyrdom in this century has been and continues to be highly selective.

From"Martyrs, Correct and Incorrect" in First Things, Nov. 1993.