Martyrdom and Acquiesence -- Sightings

Religiously inspired violence -- whether deemed necessary to "protect" one's faith or to expand it, has been with us from perhaps the beginning of time.  Religion has almost always been deeply linked to culture and thus to the basic institutions of society, and that has often led to violence.  The years after the Reformation saw Europe torn apart by wars that at least in part were religiously motivated.  In the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, as Christianity has expanded and Western power has exerted itself, we have seen not only an expansion of the church, but also persecution of Christians -- especially in Muslim dominated lands.  There is a large Chaldean Christian population in South East Michigan, refugees of an ancient Christian community in Iraq, a community that has seen its presence in Iraq shrink markedly in the past 20 years.  Martin Marty raises the question in yesterday's Sightings piece about Christian martyrdom, dealing with the charge that we too often downplay this persecution so as not to face the charge of Islamophobia.  I have my own thoughts on this topic, but I'd like to let Professor Marty offer his thoughts.


Sightings 1/10/2011

Martyrdom and Acquiescence
- Martin E. Marty

“Iran Targets Christians with a Wave of Arrests,” “Egyptian Copts Mark Christmas Cautiously,” and “Anti-Christian Crimes Downplayed,” were all Friday headlines that set the tone for weekend coverage of bad news. Google some words like “Christian Martyrs” and scroll down from early Christian accounts to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. You will find claims that hundreds of millions of Christians died for their faith in the twentieth century and that several hundred thousand still do each year of the still new twenty-first century. I’ve often questioned the methodology, definition, or mathematics of the tabulators, but when all is done and said, it’s in place to say: “No matter. Even a single death for this cause is one too many.”

The stories are played because there is such terrible news daily, but Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Huntley also wrote that these “crimes”--and they are that--are “downplayed.” There is no reason to disagree with his reporting of the crimes, but it is in place to ask what is at issue in the charge that they are “downplayed.” A reader has to ask who is doing the downplaying, for which readership, and for what reason.

Huntley has a mission; look him up and you will see that he is regularly pursuing those he regards as soft on Islam. His charges begin: American media talk too much about Islamophobia, but not enough about “the bloody persecution of Christians in parts of the Muslim world.” That the persecution goes on is unquestionably true. Whether it receives too little media space or time is harder to assess. Huntley continues his mission: merely report an Islamist threat, he complains, and you will be subjected to charges of bigotry. But most pressing on Huntley’s mind is the fact that too much of “Islamist terrorism,” backed by “radical theology,” bad clerics and bad governments is “enabled” also by “too much silence, or worse, acquiescence in the Muslim world.” I think that all these charges by Huntley are grounded, but columns like his prompt further questions which need to be faced.

What is to be the end result of such pleading for “playing up” the stories and their meanings? Should America undertake armed intervention in the “top 10 countries that are most dangerous for Christians to practice their religion in?” (Eight of these are Muslim, according to some assessments). First, America is deeply involved already. Second, should Americans find more ways to protect endangered Christians in Muslim societies? Yes. Exactly how that is to be done is hard to say. Will whatever “we” do be better received if we play up instead of merely play or certainly downplay the crimes? The history of hysteria in wartime suggests that the loss of perspective is costly, and it often issues in atrocity or blunderbuss actions. We obviously need accurate reporting and mature interpretation, and the media at their best can promote both.

On a different track we note that many reports chide Christians in America for “downplaying” or at least for not being sufficiently agitated and counter-aggressive when their brothers and sisters in those eight Islamic nations suffer. In my sightings, I do see and agree that many of them do not put as high a priority on playing up and calling for responses to Islamic (or other) persecutions of Christians. One hears fewer reports of Christian identification with Christian sufferers as Christian than, say, of Jewish identification with and support for beleaguered Jews in distant lands. Yet Christians are urged first to be “working for the good of all” and then, especially, for “those of the family of faith.” The two objects of their concern are not mutually exclusive.


Farnaz Fassihi and Matt Bradley, "Iran Targets Christians with a Wave of Arrests," Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2011.

Amro Hassan, "Egyptian Christians' Christmas Celebration Clouded by New," Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2011.

Steve Huntley, "Anti-Christian Crimes Downplayed," Chicago Sun-Times, January 7, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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