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Hallo again to all.

We have on occasion reflected on the origins of the Anglican Communion in the British Empire. While the British don't seem to have invented the notion of constructing an empire with a mixture of military and economic force (Portugal and Spain hold that distinction), the British were indisputably the best at it. The British Empire was the largest and most powerful empire in recorded history, but it did eventually get disassembled and decolonized, perhaps to be succeeded by Google.

There are formal remnants of the British Empire, most notably the Commonwealth of Nations. There are political remnants, such as parliamentary government and the Anglican Communion. And there are cultural remnants, such as driving on the left side of the road, speaking English, and celebrating Remembrance Day. Known variously as Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Poppy Day, Memorial Day, Dodenherdenking, or Volkstrauertag, it is generally celebrated on 11 November in honor of the signing on 11 November 1918 of the Armistice ending the Great War.

All of us at Anglicans Online live in some corner of the former British Empire, so we all celebrated Remembrance Day this past Friday. It's a relatively secular holiday as these things go; while there were church services held to honor war dead, they weren't very well attended, and it looked to us as though the core of public celebrations was military and not religious: there were more colonels than priests in evidence, more flags than banners, and more speeches than prayers.

Despite its secular essence and nationalistic overtones, somehow the theme of martyrdom infused the somber celebrations. Probably for strength: the early Christian church was strengthened by the sacrifices of its martyrs; we remember and celebrate and thank them to this day, just not so much on Remembrance Day.

The English writer G. K. Chesterton used to write for the London Daily News, in the first decade of the twentieth century, a column entitled 'All Things Considered'. A few dozen of those columns were collected in a book, which is where we encountered his musings on 'The Modern Martyr'. He observed that even then, before the Great War, before the first Remembrance Day, that martyrdom wasn't what it used to be. Layered on sly references to then-current events and people*, he noted with the right degree of cynicism that

Any one who can be hustled in a hall for five minutes, or put in a cell for five days, has achieved what was meant by martyrdom, and has a halo in the Christian art of the future. Miss Pankhurst will be represented holding a policeman in each hand—the instruments of her martyrdom. The Passive Resister will be shown symbolically carrying the teapot that was torn from him by tyrannical auctioneers.

Chesterton is here referring to the tradition in Christian art of picturing each martyr brandishing the weapons or instruments of his or her martyrdom. Pictures of St George often picture him holding the sword that Diocletian used to behead him.

St Cecilia, by Stefano Maderno (1610)

The term 'modern day martyrs' has, in recent years, come to refer to Christians persecuted and killed more or less anonymously for their faith by non-Christians. This report describes in great detail the fate of Christians at the hands of Islamic extremists, but only the headline writer used the word 'martyr'. The 32 Martyrs of Uganda are remembered as a group, and the names of the Roman Catholic martyrs were noted and canonized by the Roman Catholic church. The Anglicans among them were deemed 'worthy of mention' but not named or well remembered.

Despite all this, the word 'martyr' continues to mean to us something different from its use in the newspapers. We are deeply grateful to the soldiers who died defending us in various wars, and we joined the prayers of thanksgiving both on 11 November and in church the following Sunday. But we have a hard time thinking of the fallen soldiers as martyrs. They were killed for their nationality, not their faith. We understand the use of the word 'martyr' to describe a suicide bomber in a crowded city in the Middle East, but we aren't comfortable with it. We're sure that the man who carried a bomb on board a bus in Nairobi last week thought of himself as a martyr, but we don't.

Like so many emotionally laden words, 'martyr' seems to have been popularized and watered down. Yet it still means something, and we think that all of you have at least an implicit understanding of that meaning. We think that part of the meaning is somehow tied up in whether the person's death has in some way helped the larger church or inspired the faithful. If a pious Christian walks in front of a speeding train driven by an angry non-Christian, we think of that is sad and unfortunate but we don't think of it as martyrdom. If the same pious Christian has been tied to the railroad tracks by angry non-Christians, and has been told that they will untie him and let him go if he renounces his faith in Christ, and if there is a BBC film crew recording the event, we certainly think of that as martyrdom. Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the true modern meaning of the word, and if we knew just where that line fell, we'd tell you.

What do you think? Do you know of any modern-day martyrs whose martyrdom is a comfortable fit to your understanding of the original concept? Tell us if you do.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

13 November 2011

*You can expand your understanding of Chesterton's column by reading about Miss Pankhurst, the Passive Resisters, Dr Clifford, and the Suffragettes chaining themselves to a railing.

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