February 6, 2014

What is it, I wonder, that makes martyrdom so attractive to those for whom it is not a risk?

The Most Reverend James D. Conley, STL, the Catholic bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, writes in this way in a recent post for First Things.  He does so on behalf of Pope Francis:

The promise of the Gospel is that authentic commitment to the truth—and a refusal to separate a commitment to social justice from a commitment to orthodoxy and piety—will lead to conversion. The path of Pope Francis might lead to “media martyrdom.” But martyrdom sows the seeds of conversion.

There is a qualification, it is true, regarding (the horror that is contemporary) mass media.  But the point remains: it won;t be the author’s experience or that of those who offered comments on the article.

Elsewhere, Robert Morgan, published in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, in 2010, made the following comment on the ‘self-confessed sin of Christians [in National Socialist Germany]’.*  Morgan noted:

the failure of most (not all) Christians to face martyrdom for themselves and their families when that was perhaps the only fully adequate Christian response.†

As Morgan noted, not quite all failed his basic test of making ‘the only fully adequate Christian response’.  

What is now interesting is not only the typically loose expression of such matters as martyrdom, ‘the death or suffering of a martyr’.  It is also, first, the failure to recognise either its unsought presence among Christians, particularly in the Middle East.  Secondly, and perversely, it is the discounted nature of persecution of the followers of Christ, and martyrdom of some, among historians of the Third Reich.  

I recently endeavoured to find the name of Pastor Paul Schneider, murdered in Buchenwald concentration camp, in July 1939, in the indexes of recent works of history where one might have expected to find it.  And, as that suggests, it occurs but very rarely.   Indeed, the more glowing the reviews of the work, the less likely is it that Schneider’s name (let alone details of his pastorate and persecution) will appear.  

In brief, the following list indicates a disturbing trend of disregard for a significant proportion of the historical record:  Bergen, Twisted Cross (1996); Heschel, Aryan Jesus; Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler (1985); Judaism and Christianity under the Impact of National Socialism, ed. Kulka and Mendes-Flohr (1987); Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust (2012); Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust, ed. Ericksen and Heschel (1999); Historiography of the Holocaust, ed. Stone (2010). 

I don’t read German.  One two accounts is this a pest.  One, naturally, is the fact that original sources are beyond me.  Secondly, I cannot read what conclusions historians writing in German have reached in, say, the last twenty years.  Most especially does this matter at the level of microhistory, work telling of the life of local churches and families.  Nor, therefore, can I compare these with the much-lauded work of Heschel and Ericksen so damning of Christians and Christianity.  For it would be very interesting to know what occurred at the local level, of daily life and devotion under a racist, totalitarian regime.  That is to say, the places where easy talk of martyrdom could not exist.



*  Robert Morgan, ‘Susannah Heschel’s Aryan Grundmann’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 32, no. 4 (2010), pp. 437.

†  Ibid., p. 438.