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Today portions of Islam seek to create their own “martyrdom,” yet many more Christians are unwillingly and forcibly finding it: 176,000 a year, 482 a day or 1 every 3 minutes, according to several human rights groups.
Christian martyrdom as a subject is conspicuously absent in the press and the art world with a few exceptions, but tragically common across the earth. More Christians were murdered for their faith in the 20th century than all earlier times combined. This century isn’t starting off any less bloody, with Christians composing an estimated 80 percent of those persecuted or killed over their religion alone.
Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Polish priest, volunteered to die in place of a complete stranger in Auschwitz in 1941. Pope John Paul II later declared Kolbe as “the patron saint of our difficult century,” perhaps sensing how events would take place. Most Christians won’t die in such a spectacularly public display, but many missionaries and others are martyred while they still serve their killers. Isn’t this world strange?
Christ warned us not to expect fair treatment from the “world,” but silence from church and Christian artists is troubling. No howls of lamentation for Mallam Abdullahi keening over the bodies of his sons in a Nigerian school. No operatic dirge of sorrow sounds for young Adnan Masih, tortured and killed by Pakistan’s own police on June 10, 2013. He is one of many.
Western artists, filmmakers and especially musicians are in position to publicize anything on a whim, to an almost infinite audience. Subjects for these singers tend to annoyingly cluster around the poles of emotional turmoil, adolescent romance, light political statements, endless joys of sex and personal details we never wanted to know. U2 frontman Bono, Billy Talent, System of a Down, Bruce Cockburn and some of Bob Dylans’ older things are some exceptions in the secular world, while Christian artists take it on just slightly more often.
The English word for “martyr” derives from martu or a “witness.” Openly witnessing our faith or even quietly living it is extremely perilous in some places, and that arena seems to be growing.
“Des hommes et des dieux” (“Of Men and of Gods”) is a 2010 French film where the dangers of Christian “witness” are beautifully depicted by director Xavier Beauvois. Based on the true story of Trappist monks serving Muslims in Algeria, seven who refused to leave were assassinated in 1996 during yet another Algerian Civil War. Strongly supportive of the monks’ compassion and courage, the film was highly rated by critics but dissed by the public. Not enough things blowing up or just too much to think about at once?
Le Monde’s Isabelle Regnier wrote: “We can, we must, even, consider this film as a profession of faith.”
Visual art memorializing martyrs is slightly more likely to happen in Latin America. “Martyrs of Jesuit University” from El Salvador’s 1989 civil war appear in a memorial plaque of murdered priests and workers who were suspected of supporting the dissidents. Br. Robert Lentz painted the piece 20 years later as circular icon-style portraits, usually reserved for saints. Another series of drawings posed as Stations of the Cross are from the Jesuit Chapel at the University of Central America, San Salvador. Typically, the Christian presenters inclusively extend justice to all people, as victims of the civil war weren’t all religious and suffered on both sides.
The exhibit is prefaced by this: “A faith-filled reflection upon the suffering of Christ in the unjust tortures of the people of El Salvador.”
Another beautiful contemporary piece referencing martyrdom is Mexican painter Mauricio García Vega’s “Retablo de los mártires” (“Altar of the Martyrs”). His painting of human figures overwhelmed and almost obliterated by their surroundings is muted, somber and somewhat abstracted. They give the impression of a queue waiting for something, perhaps a judgment.
When Western artists take on the subject of martyrdom, it’s generally mockingly light-hearted or simperingly self-serving. Did this trend begin with John Lennon’s self-pitying plea as he compares himself to the death of Christ from a luxurious bed in the Amsterdam Hilton?
“Christ you know it ain’t easy – you know how hard it can be
The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me “
At any rate, swooningly rich and decadent artists from Lady Gaga to Madonna seem obsessed on showing each other up with personal fantasies of “victimhood” including binding, attacks and crucifixion. A Stockholm hard rock band is called “Crucified Barbara.” Apparently their audiences are numbed and terrifically bored through constant displays of anatomy – anything to nab the glory without the pain.
Possibly the most successful contemporary American painter who has even addressed the subject of martyrdom and Christians is Kehinde Wiley. Some of his highly realistic, full-length portraits bear the names of famous saints from the past, but he makes it hard for us to take him seriously. For instance, in his St. Cecilia a young black person of indeterminate sex (but tending more male) stretches across a bed, apparently deceased. Pink, decorative floral background looking like upholstery catalogs make lighten the scene, as do the trendy street clothing with obvious name brands. Even some secular critics note the discrepancy between the subject and titular object in Wiley’s works. They also complain that other artists actually created them, but that’s another day’s work.
Sawai Chinnawong is a Thai artist whose work centers on his strong Christian faith. Chinnawong’s simple yet powerful painting “Lost Son” graphically evokes the emotion of a man who has lost his son – in this case because of his faith.
The leanness of the man and emptiness near his heart and belly are beautifully symbolic of what he is missing. He looks about to fall. It’s a situation that happens in Chinnawong’s nation, but even more so with his neighbors in Laos and Viet Nam.
But who gets the press and the gallery shows on martrydom? Ironically it’s the same Muslims who covet and manufacture their own demise, possibly taking a host of innocent Christians and/or Muslims along with them.
This was the case in Paris last June when “Martyrs” art show by Ahlam Shibli at the Jeu de Paume featured Palestinian terrorists both dead and imprisoned for various crimes including stabbing children. The exhibit ignited some outcries (mostly by Jews, the intended targets in the first place), but the gallery denies it is “condoning terrorism” and the show goes on through this September.
In yet more denial of Christian persecution, Candida Moss pens “The Myth of Persecution,” in 2013 where she deliberately ignores established facts and rewrites the history of the church all by herself. Although obviously some narratives of particular saints and situations have changed over the years, this century stands in refute to her statements that martyrdom is a “conspiratorial assumption” that we should just get over.
Moss’ work was gleefully jumped upon by the Huffington Post and rode as hard as they could, perhaps to rationalize their constant attacks on Christians coupled with a new excuse to ignore real suffering, should they ever recognize it.
Moss’ last offering as a supposed “leading expert on early Christianity” is a study in denial and obfuscation for whatever her purpose.
The martyrs of Compiègne, a group of Carmelite nuns beheaded by the French revolutionaries more than 200 years ago, have inspired numerous paintings, plays, novels and an opera. One of the sisters, Mother Henriette, penned a poem that was read at her execution. Below is a fragment comparing the world and its violence with her faith and God:
It is the sorrow that devours it.
I despise its pride,
I consider its hatred an honor;
and I prefer my chains
to its spurious freedom.
O day of eternal celebration
There’s a tendency to ignore current atrocities until the last survivor is long gone before we publicize or mourn it. The string of WWII and Holocaust-based films and books are great and noble endeavors, but 70 years late to change anything. I suggest we use the arts to memorialize current victims of Christian persecution as well as Jewish and other groups. Perhaps it may stop attacks in the future, and if not, at least we did something.
In paraphrase of an old gospel tune, “Everybody talkin’ bout justice ain’t doin it … justice.”