BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Agbaw Ebai

Agbaw Ebai Ashley

The Perenniality of Christian Martyrdom

Before canonizations became centralized under the papacy, the most common factor that made a canonized saint of a Christian was what Catholic tradition refers to as odium fidei – hatred for the faith! After the so-called Edict of Milan in 313 AD which made Christianity the de-facto religion of the empire, sainthood came to be identified with the heroic virtues of faith, hope and love. Notwithstanding, the 20th century turned out to be what Saint John Paul II famously described as the century of martyrs. The later part of that century saw an unprecedented display of odium fidei. This has aggravated in the 21st century under an interesting form of political correctness that seeks to limit the faith to freedom of worship, in the name of tolerance and the separation between Church and State. The strategy seem to be to say nice things about the Pope and the Church, but ignore them when they talk against abortion; preach that marriage is a life-long union between one man and one woman; and criticize the economy of exclusion that dominates contemporary capitalism.

While radical Islam is claiming many Christian lives in Muslim dominated countries the world over, in the developed West, freedom of speech has become the tool that releases the energies of Christianophobia. It is cantankerous that freedom of speech has come to mean no freedom for the teachings of the Christian Bible, often classified as “hate speech” by a Western society that has rejected and is rejecting Biblical religion.

Recently, a Satanic Temple announced that it was going to stage a “Black Mass” co-sponsored by the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, on May 12th at Queens Head Pub in Memorial Hall, Harvard University campus. With mounting pressure from over 60,000 alumni and Catholics and peoples of all faiths and none, this “Black Mass,” which is a mockery of the Catholic Mass and often included a desecration of a Consecrated Host, was called off at the last minute. What is most telling is the argument made by the President of Harvard University, Dr. Drew Faust. She declined to cancel the event because “vigorous and open discussion and debate are essential to the pursuit of knowledge. Freedom of expression protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” How a “Black Mass” organized by the Satanic Temple on Harvard campus could have contributed to the “pursuit of knowledge” is puzzling and ridiculous, especially since it’s about the worship of Satan! That freedom of expression was invoked to justify such an anti-Catholic activity points to the problematic that this concept has come to imply in recent times.

Other examples abound. In Canada, those who hold that the child in the womb deserves the right to life are prohibited from becoming leaders in the Liberal Party of Canada. On May 14th 2014, Cardinal Thomas Collins wrote to Mr. Justin Trudeau, MP, telling him that with the present policy of the party spearheaded by him, Pope Francis would have been ineligible as a candidate for the Liberal Party. On Monday, May 5th 2014, the United States Supreme Court said on a 5-4 vote that the town of Greece in New York state did not violate the Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion by allowing Christian prayers before monthly meetings. In a closely divided decision, the court said a prayer could violate the Constitution if there was an attempt to intimidate, coerce or convert nonbelievers. For a country noted for its long Christian history, such a slim victory of 5-4 is a pointer to how “America the beautiful,” to use the 1979 description by Saint John Paul II at Boston Common, Massachusetts, has fallen or is falling away from the Christian faith. Close to home, Kenya followed the practice in Cameroon this May 2014 by legalizing polygamy, thirty-three years after John Paul II’s magisterial magnum opus on family life, Familiaris Consortio, that taught the beauty of family life and marriage as a life-long covenantal relationship between one man and one woman, for the good of the spouses and procreation and the religious upbringing of children. Nowadays, in many parts of the Western world, the traditional home of Christianity, even bishops and priests are advocating forms of sexual life that in plain biblical language, are sinful and contradict the grammar of the complementarity of the sexes as built into the creation of humanity, male and female; or the goodness and sacredness of the sexual act! With no signs of averting on the horizons in terms of the anti-Christian policies, how does Catholicism respond to this new hatred for the faith?

I will argue for a robust Christian witness. The period when the Church counted on society for the transmission of the Christian faith is over. Christendom is a think of the past. The Church today must rise to the challenge faced by the early Christians, of living in a hostile society that demands the shedding of blood, symbolized in political exclusion, physical threats, economic pressure, media blackmail, et cetera. Without the readiness to die for the faith, Catholicism will increasingly find itself in a ghetto of survival in the form of religious relics.

Secondly, Catholicism must rediscover and reaffirm the truth of faith that God speaks in the written word of the Bible. At the root of modern rejection of Christian teaching is the rejection of the definitive revelation of God’s word in Scripture. It is highly disturbing that the Bishops of the Church of England will not want to use the word “sin” in their pastoral letter on the nature of Christian marriage. It is even more puzzling that some Catholic bishops in Germany and Italy are calling for a redefinition of marriage according to the contemporary ethos of post-Christian Western society. If Catholicism is to rediscover its evangelical energy, now might very well be the time to reflect on this admonition by St. Paul that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16).

There is likewise an urgent need to cultivate a proper understanding of God’s mercy that is faithful to the bible and inspired by the living tradition of the Church and the example of the saints. While it is true that the Church today must become a battle field hospital healing the wounds of society, as Pope Francis describes it, it is also the case that some wounded soldiers might refuse the fact that they are wounded. I once told a group of Christians that were I to be an alcoholic I will be disappointed if the Church were to say that drunkenness was no longer a sin! I prefer a Church that challenges me to have the courage to leave sin than one that refuses to call sin by what it really is, even if I have to undergo moral and spiritual pruning of all sorts.

Recently Cardinal Kasper was in Boston for a presentation of his new book on Mercy. While Kasper’s work is a great tour de force, being an accomplished theologian that he is, I dare say that the form of mercy Kasper is proposing and the ambiguous interviews he is giving is a clear form that empties mercy of its challenging nature. In the name of mercy, senior church men are emptying the cross of its meaning by seeking to psychologize God into a category of “I am OK – You are OK maxim! Yet God’s mercy bears the full weight of the pain of the crucifixion in the body of his Son, Jesus Christ. God’s mercy does not come cheap, Ratzinger exclaimed, in his homily for the mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice, in April 2005.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once famously said: I will have the privilege to die on a bed in a hospital. My successor will die in a prison. His successor will be burnt on a stake. But the Church of Christ will rise from her condemned position and save the ruins of civilization from decay. Perhaps more than ever today, the Church should prepare itself for this hatred of the faith, this new martyrdom, by being prepared to die, trusting that she will rise on her new Easter morn, since victory is the Lamb that was slain! Courageous and evangelical witnessing is all she might have left, as she faces the new martyrdom of the 21st post-Christian world.