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Eyes fixed on the eternal

29 January 2021

Catherine Pepinster reflects on the changing nature of martyrdom

Anne-Marie Palmer/Alamy

Twentieth-century martyrs (including St Maximilian Kolbe and St Óscar Romero) above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey

Twentieth-century martyrs (including St Maximilian Kolbe and St Óscar Romero) above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey

A BOWL, a fork, and two wooden spoons: they are the simplest of artefacts, but a Bristol auction house has recently valued them as worth at least £60,000. Last year, a pair of spectacles was purchased from the same auction house for £260,000: 26 times their asking price. Like the bowl and utensils, buyers wanted them because they had once belonged to Mahatma Gandhi.

Acquiring items that once belonged to the famous, whether leaders such as Gandhi or showbiz celebrities, offers a special connection to that person. They are a contemporary secular equivalent of relics — those pieces of bone, skin, and other items deriving from Christianity’s holiest men and women.

In pre-Reformation England, pilgrims flocked to the shrines of saints Alban, Edmund, and Thomas Becket: three of the nation’s greatest martyrs. Their jewelled caskets of relics drew crowds, who believed that the bodies of those who had themselves died violent deaths, but were now in paradise, retained some special power on earth. They could act as conduits for God’s power to heal the sick and the lame.

While no such claim might be made for Gandhi’s bowl or his prescription lenses, the Mahatma — like Alban, Edmund, and Becket — is also revered as a martyr. The man who led the non-violent campaign for Indian independence and the rejection of British imperialism suffered a violent death: he was shot at close range not by a supporter of the empire, but by a Hindu extremist nationalist.

Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January 1948 is remembered on that date every year, when Indian leaders mark the country’s national Martyrs Day by recalling the death of Gandhi and other Indian martyrs at the Mahatma’s shrine in Delhi. On that same day, 4000 miles away in Britain, those who consider Charles I a holy martyr remember his beheading in 1649, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, after his conviction for treason by Roundhead parliamentarians. In the calendar of commemoration, 30 January is a busy day, falling also in the octave of the Conversion of St Paul.


AN ADVOCATE of civil disobedience, a victim of regicide who lost a civil war, a persecutor of Christians who underwent a powerful conversion and died for Christ: all of these are recognised by those who are devoted to them as martyrs. That they are all honoured with this title indicates how widely the term is used.

What Gandhi, St Paul, and Charles I do have in common — as indeed do Alban, Edmund, and Becket — is that they came to a violent end at the hands of those who opposed them. Whether that enmity was due, as in the case of Charles I, to attempts to govern as an absolute monarch and resistance to changing the episcopal nature of the Church of England, or, as in Gandhi’s case, to non-violence, or to Becket’s conflict with Henry II, all of them sacrificed their lives for their beliefs.

In Christianity, however, a violent death matters not for its own sake but because it is part of a life of witness to Christ, which reaches its culmination in making the ultimate sacrifice.

Traditional ideas of martyrdom — the word derives from the Greek for “witness” — focused on its roots in hatred of the faith. Paul, like Peter, was killed by a ruling Roman regime that expected loyalty to the empire above all else, and considered Christianity a treacherous threat. The clash of religion and the state has played a significant part in the story of martyrdom ever since, from Roman Catholics perceived as a threat to Elizabeth I to those who lost their lives confronting Nazism and Communism.

In the 20th century, however, theologians increasingly argued that the cause of martyrdom was too narrowly defined. They believe that it should be expanded to include those who died not only for their God, but for their fellow human beings.

Pope Paul VI expressed this when, in 1971, he beatified Fr Maximilian Kolbe — a Franciscan friar who offered his own life in Auschwitz in place of a father who was being taken to the gas chamber — and described him as “a martyr of charity”: a term endorsed 11 years later by St John Paul II at Kolbe’s canonisation.

Like Becket, Óscar Romero was slain before his altar after angering those in charge of his country; but the San Salvadoran archbishop lost his life in 1980 not just because of a clash of wills, but after he had repeatedly spoken up for the oppressed of his nation. He was a witness to truth — a martyr, as the theologians Karl Rahner and Jon Sobrino described it, of justice.


IN THE first two decades of the 21st century, we have seen a disturbing return to traditional martyrdom, as Christians have increasingly lost their lives, persecuted by Islamist forces in Africa and the Middle East who express hatred of the Christian faith. As we enter this century’s third decade, martyrdom is clearly a fluid concept: men and women are still dying for their religious beliefs, and for justice for humanity, but also for a new and particular cause — for the sake of the planet.

Among the environmental martyrs is Sister Dorothy Stang — called “The Martyr of the Amazon” — who was murdered after she spoke up over the exploitation of the region and its native peoples.

So, martyrdom changes. Yet it also remains constant: these are ordinary men and women who, put to the test, make the most extraordinary sacrifice, and demonstrate the most remarkable courage.


Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet, and the author of Martyrdom: Why martyrs still matter, published by SPCK at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £19.99); 978-0-281081653.

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