June 14, 1999
Looking for Martyrs
-- Martin E. Marty
Asked "Do you believe in God?" seventeen year-old Cassie Bernall of Littleton, Colorado, witnessed that she did and was shot. She has since been proclaimed a martyr. What is a martyr? How many martyrs are there? Who needs them? If you believe the statistics in THE INTERNATIONAL BULLETIN OF MISSIONARY RESEARCH, there are estimated to have been an average of 164,000 Christian martyrs annually in the mid-1990s. What sense such a figure makes is hard to tell. Those who compute this have to include whole populations--for example, those parts of Christian tribes or peoples killed en masse in such places as Liberia and Rwanda. (Other religions have martyrs too, Muslims especially; were we closer to the Kosovo scene we would recognize this more immediately.)
If in a single year there are 164,000 martyrs--people who have witnessed and died for their faith--and if the presence of martyrs is a confirmation that the surrounding world is hostile but that the faithful are faithful, one has to ask, where were the American martyrs? Preachers preach regularly on texts that help prepare their flocks to witness, suffer, and die for faith--yet no one does. Now comes Ms. Bernall.
TIME [May 31] said that "mainline Protestantism does not make much of martyrdom." Wrong. Martin Luther King Jr. was to it a "witness=martyr," even if the killer killed him for racist more than religious reasons. Who knows? German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed by Hitler, was a martyr, but mainline Protestants acknowledge that he was a "guilty martyr," because he was a member of the group that formally was out to kill Hitler, which is an act of treason. Mainstream Protestants "borrow" martyrs, many of them identifying with South Africa's Steve Biko, Archbishop Oscar Romero, numbers of nuns, and numberless martyrs to Central American regimes and many more.
NEWSWEEK [June 14] notes that evangelicals, who claim Bernall used to be opposed to "turning martyrs into saints," but today they are eager to do so. Their Web sites are full of stories about Christians being shunned, persecuted, but rarely killed. Now Cassie and some classmates serve as inspirations in the youth culture. NEWSWEEK worries about a commercial cult of Cassiedom. There are already T-shirts about her; will there some day be stained glass?
Our old friend, Littleton Lutheran pastor Don Marxhausen (misspelled Moxhousen in NEWSWEEK), who had the funeral for one of the killers, fears exploitation of Bernall-in-heaven as an "escapist theology." Others fear commercialism and cultism in a celebrity-and martyr-hungry world. The interviewed public shows great respect for Ms. Bernall and her grieving parents. Whether those who have needed a martyr will let her rest in peace is another question entirely.