Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Don't Call Them Martyrs: All Major Religions Honor Their Martyrs. but What about Suicide Bombers?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Don't Call Them Martyrs: All Major Religions Honor Their Martyrs. but What about Suicide Bombers?

Article excerpt

NIGHTLY TELEVISION BOMBARDS US WITH PICTURES of young Muslims, some dressed in their burial shrouds, marching through the streets of the Middle East ready to offer themselves as martyrs." Almost as frequently we see the carnage that those who carry out their vows create. The walls of West Bank settlements are festooned with posters honoring suicide bombers.

The term martyr is familiar to Christians. Having researched and written about Christian martyrs, I find it disconcerting to see the word appropriated by those who maim and kill in order to "witness," which is what martyr means. Witness to what? Their hatred? Their despair? Their willingness to give their lives in hope of a heavenly reward? How, I keep thinking, did martyr come to mean "suicide bomber"?

Killing oneself and others in the name of some religious ideal is not exactly a new phenomenon. Kamikaze pilots did it in the Second World War, and anarchists of various stripes are part of world history. Equally, taking up weapons and risking death in the name of religion is part of the reality of all major religions. Islam spread by the sword; Hinduism argues that the caste duty of the warrior is to fight; the Old Testament sees the hand of providence in the conquest of the Holy Land; and Christians mounted crusader armies in the Middle Ages to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims.

All the major religions prize their martyrs. In more than one place Pope John Paul II has lifted up the Christian martyrs of modern times as public witnesses to the fact that some truths are worth giving one's life for.

What then are we to say about the fact that Christianity honors martyrs--we canonize them--as does Islam? Both memorialize them in prayer and tradition; both expect them to gain a heavenly reward. Does the symmetry go beyond that? And can one be a martyr for the wrong cause?

It seems clear that if a pious person of any religion dies for the sake of God or matters of the moral law, then that person is by any criterion a martyr in an authentic sense of the term. The matter becomes quite different, however, when a person gives up his or her life in the name of religion while, at the same time, taking the lives of others, especially random innocent victims. …

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