While the concept of martyria or witnessing has long been forgotten by western Christians who no longer fear religious persecution, the presence of ‘shahadat’ or martyrs is ever present in the life of this Palestinian clergyman & his nation.
For those Christians who make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, walking and praying along the Via Dolorosa or “Way of the Cross” has become a standard. Starting at the location from which it is believed that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus Christ to the cross, Christians walk all fourteen “stations” of Christ’s suffering until they reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is here, at the sight of his crucifixion and burial, that the Son of God’s martyrdom is commemorated.
In his book, Witnessing for Peace, Bishop Munib Younan dedicates an entire chapter to “A Theology of Martyria”. While the concept of martyria or witnessing has long been forgotten by western Christians who no longer fear religious persecution, the presence of ‘shahadat’ or martyrs is ever present in the life of this Palestinian clergyman & his nation.
Living in a region of the world where occupation, oppression, apartheid, and suicide bombings have become the unfortunate norm, Bishop Younan’s claim that the “theology of martyria” is a “concept misunderstood” is not only refreshing, but long overdue.
For years, religious fundamentalism – whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian – has played a significant role in the erroneous interpretation of the scriptures in which the concept of martyria is found. According to Younan, while fundamentalist Jews have exploited a believed promise between God and Abraham to justify brutal policies aimed at marginalizing the Palestinian people and simultaneously fulfilling their hunger for territorial expansion, Muslim fundamentalists have mistakenly “tied” the concept of “martyrdom to death”. Christian fundamentalists, meanwhile, have focused too much of their attention upon spreading the word of God through “evangelism”, not deed – “a far cry from the witness described in the Acts
of the Apostles”. In fact, Younan claims that much of the contemporary world has ignored the connection between word and deed – an unfortunate phenomenon that Palestinian society has long claimed as being true.
Contrary to popular belief, Younan claims that martyria is about life – not death. However, “It is about living fully in such a way that death is the outcome”. Elaborating upon this, Bishop Younan states that there are three necessary and equal components to martyria: word, deed, and suffering. To speak about an issue, but hypocritically not act upon it – to act upon a matter without educating others about its importance – or to simply inflict suffering upon one’s self or others without proper justification and explanation are all incompatible with the concept of martyria. Indeed, to become a true martyr, one must contribute equally to “witnessing in word, witnessing in deed, and exposing oneself to danger, whatever the cost”. If this “cost” so happens to be death, then one will have become a martyr. However, to simply kill one’s self in a desperate act of hopelessness does not constitute martyria, but murder – a sin against God in all three Abrahamic faiths.
It is astounding to observe the irony plaguing the area of Palestine-Israel, otherwise known as “The Holy Land”. In a region where religions were introduced in order to end the perverse exploitation of man and his world, such abuses not only exist, but are falsely justified by those very religions.
Perhaps the most disappointing has been Christianity’s response. While Judaism and Islam are, in fact, theologically grounded in the virtues of peace and justice, neither faith boasts adherence to a Holy Trinity, in which the Son of God himself provided an exemplary lifestyle for followers to emulate. In the case of Jesus Christ, he indeed was a martyr – as he bore witness to the word of God, acted in accordance with those words, and suffered along the Via Dolorosa for man’s sins. He did not kill himself, nor did he want to die, but because he refused to deviate from a righteous path, he was killed. For this, his reward was resurrection.
But if Christians are indeed required to follow Christ’s example by bearing witness to the virtues of peace, truth, love, and justice – “whatever the cost” – then why have millions of Christians either remained silent or avoided turning their words into deeds on the issue of Palestinian suffering?
Bishop Younan faithfully claims that “Martyria is the Via Dolorosa with resurrection”. If this interpretation of “a theology of martyria” is correct, then it’s about time more Christians step forward and offer themselves up as martyrs for a true and just resolution to the Palestinian Issue.
* Nadeem Muaddi is a graduate student of Political Science at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He can be reached at Nadeem_Muaddi@yahoo.com.