Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Review: To the Martyrs, by Cdl. Donald Wuerl

Cdl. Donald Wuerl
Emmaus Road Publishing
Cover Price: $22.95

 Anti-Christians condemn Christians for their hypocrisy. However, not a single Christian martyr has ever suffered persecution by non-Christians for failing to live the gospel message perfectly. Rather, Christians were and are persecuted just for associating themselves with the gospel message in the first place. Imperfection of religious practice has hardly been a barrier to execution, imprisonment, maiming, rape, or torture by those who hate Christianity and that for which they think it stands.

This is the first thought that occurs to me after reading To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness by Cdl. Donald Wuerl. The title reflects both the title of a letter by the Church Father Tertullian and Wuerl’s own personal fascination with, and dedication to, the millions of martyrs and confessors who have been “the seeds of the Church” over the last two millennia. It’s a “reflection” as well in that it’s obviously not an exhaustive treatment of martyrdom intended for scholars and Church historians, but rather a brief overview for the ordinary layman. Written in a very accessible style, it has just enough footnotes to show that the good archbishop didn’t rely on his own memory or make things up as he went along.

As one reads To the Martyrs, though, a theme recurs. G. K. Chesterton famously noted that the Christian ideal hadn’t been “tried hard, and found wanting,” but rather had been “found difficult; and left untried.” However, as Cdl. Wuerl shows, the centuries of persecution didn’t come from people who found the Christian ideal too difficult to live up to, but rather from people who found that ideal too challenging, too uncomfortable to live with.

This theme begins with the Introduction, “The Crime Called Christianity”. Cdl. Wuerl uses as his springboard the Neronian persecution of 64 AD; although there had been some local outbreaks and a couple of minor efforts under Claudius, this was the first time that Christians were sentenced to death in large numbers. The crime for which they were condemned, oddly enough, was “hatred of humanity”, according to the Roman historian Tacitus. Wuerl then explains:

It must have seemed a curious charge to the Christians. We have no trial transcripts, but surely they responded that they hated no one. They followed a Master whose New Commandment was to love without stinting and without exception. Yet in Rome they were identified with hatred — and so they were hated — and hated to death.
Such charges could stick because the Christians opposed what had become Rome’s new morality — its routine adultery and easy divorce, its indolence and abuse of slave labor, its drunkenness and sadistic entertainments, its abortion and infanticide. To do these things was simply to live as a normal Roman, which was by earthly standards the pinnacle of humanity. To oppose such actions, then, was hatred of humanity. (p. xxii)

The Introduction then goes on to remind us that, in many regions, Christianity is a crime for which people are being punished, often in front of our eyes through the magic of social media. They aren’t persecuted because they practice Christianity badly, but because they dare to practice it at all; they’re persecuted because the Christian gospel is seen as a threat to the ruling powers’ hold over the people.

The ancient Greek word martys, Cdl. Wuerl reminds us, was a legal term for one who gives testimony (martyria) in a trial, a witness; in some ancient procedures, one could literally offer his life as surety for the truth of his testimony. The willingness to die for the truth — for any truth — is an extraordinary act by any modern culture’s measure. While most of us would like to believe we’d die for the sake of family and friends, and many of us would like to believe that we would die for the sake of our country, not as many are as willing to die for an idea or a cause. In fact, not many people would deny that the sun rises in the west if the result of that denial were torture or imprisonment; in some cases, the mere threat of denial of tenure or loss of contract would suffice.

Then, in chapter after chapter, Cdl. Wuerl shows us that the ultimate weapon of the State to enforce social conformity, physical punishment, fails time and again to eliminate Christianity. From the Masses in the Roman catacombs, to the “priest holes” in Elizabethan England, to nuns publicly professing their vows before their execution in revolutionary France, to the underground churches in modern China, Christianity has managed to survive and even thrive despite the goriest, most horrific punishments the State could inflict on those whom it caught.

Indeed, the examples of the martyrs have inspired non-Christians to stand and die with them, undergoing what the Church calls “the Baptism of Blood”. One of my favorite examples of this is the legend of St. Genesius of Rome, who underwent a fake Baptism to mock Christianity and became a convert before the play was done; it’s only a rhetorical exaggeration to say he was martyred before his hair was dry. Cdl. Wuerl gives a more recent example of a Muslim who, witnessing the Islamic State behead twenty Coptic Christians in Libya this last February, stepped up to join them in death, saying, “Their God is my God.”

In his last chapter, “The Ecumenism of Blood”, Cdl. Wuerl also points out that persecution has done more for Christian ecumenism than decades of talks under conditions of broad religious freedom. Much like Julian the Apostate did in the fourth century, the Church’s enemies in America today are taking advantage of divisions among Christians to advance their agendas. However, as the threat of active persecution grows here, Catholics and Protestants are being forced by a common danger to put aside or resolve dogmatic differences, just as have many Eastern communions.

“Humiliated alike and driven to the same catacombs,” Cdl. Wuerl writes, “Christians may at last come to put aside old resentments and see our differences with greater clarity and charity — and resolve them, for the sake of survival. From the martyrs we may learn to put aside pride, centuries-old resentments, and personal prejudice and encounter one another in truth.” (p. 128)

To the Martyrs reminds us that Jesus not only promised his followers persecution in this life but named it a blessing that we should be hated and oppressed for his name’s sake (cf. Matthew 5:11-12). At the same time, Cdl. Wuerl reminds us that we’re not to actively seek martyrdom, that we’re not required to surrender religious liberty when it’s threatened, and that we’re not to admire the martyrs so much that we do nothing to stop the persecution of Christians in our own time.

Surprisingly, Cdl. Wuerl spends little time on the situation in the US and Canada. He’s careful not to draw too bold a comparison between the relatively minor inconveniences American Christians have suffered and the torments inflicted on Christians elsewhere in the world. At the same time, he warns, “To say ‘it can’t happen here’ is to speak from profound naiveté and ignorance of history.” (p. 111)

The Church is denounced as prejudiced, narrow-minded, and even un-American simply because her teaching respects human life, upholds traditional marriage, and calls for health care for the most needy in our country. We hear, more and more, that our government cannot and will not tolerate such dissent. In places quite near to us — in Canada, in fact — Christians who promote traditional morality have been charged with hate speech.
When someone tells you, “You cannot speak here,” the next sentence is often, “You do not belong here.” (p. 112)

In giving us this thumbnail sketch of the history of Christian martyrdom, Cdl. Wuerl reminds us that we American Catholics were exceedingly fortunate to have been born in a country that was established as a haven for religious dissenters. However, “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). Precisely because we have been so successful in a nation that’s been chronically anti-Catholic, we should be all the more vocal in protesting the persecution of Christians abroad, and all the more obdurate in protecting our rights at home. Moreover, as Cdl. Wuerl suggests, we should prepare ourselves against the day when the very right under which we have flourished is taken away from us, and we are treated as second-class citizens or hostile foreigners by our own people.

When the persecution comes, they won’t ask if you’re a perfectly-practicing Christian; they’ll simply ask if you’re a Christian. Make your life evidence for your answer.

In sum, To the Martyrs is a light yet timely read, a book Catholics should keep on their shelves not as a reference work or a devotional manual but as a reminder of the costs of discipleship. Kudos to Cdl. Wuerl for making it so easy to read and carry, yet so hard to put out of one’s mind.