August 22 is the United Nation’s International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
Christians should not need to be told about what people have suffered because of their faith. Jesus himself reminded his hearers of the fate of prophets in Israel, and he was himself killed because his preaching of God’s Kingdom was unacceptable to the authorities. Early Christians, too, lived with the knowledge that they might be tortured and killed for their faith. They honoured and sought the intercession of the martyrs of their own day. They saw them as models of Christian faith who had followed Jesus to death in the hope of rising with him. Throughout history, Christian children heard stories of the gruesome death of martyrs, often inflicted by rulers who also described themselves as Christian.
Honouring the martyrs of our group is a mark of respect for people who lived and died courageously for a faith we share. But it can also feed hatred. Children, for example, often believe that players in the football teams they support can do no wrong. In any fight, in any tribunal appearance, they are always the victims of villainous opponents. Some of us grow out of this conviction as we become older.
In allegiances that lie closer to the heart of our identity, however, we can easily ignore the ways in which people outside our group also suffer for their beliefs, sometimes at the hands of people who share our faith. Catholics may honour Thomas More and the Catholic martyrs in England who died under Henry VIII and Elizabeth, but then forget the deaths of the Reforming martyrs Latimer and Ridley at the hands of a Catholic queen. Similarly, we can focus on the deaths of Christians at Muslim hands during history and ignore or defend the deaths of Muslim at the hands of Christians.
When we think of martyrs, we usually think of people who are arrested and tried for their beliefs. They have the choice to renounce their faith. Many people, however, are given no choice. They are bombed, burned, killed, maimed, tortured or raped simply because they live in the wrong town. These people who have no opportunity to profess the beliefs attributed to them deserve to be honoured at least as much as those who freely accepted to suffer for their faith. As American poet Antony Hecht said, writing of a Christian burned at the stake for his faith, he was:
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquillity…
Others are deprived even of that dignity.
The Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief also commemorates people who are treated violently on account of their non-religious beliefs – sometimes, indeed, for their denial of religious belief – such as political and ethical convictions. People who press to reform laws they believe unjust on racial or other grounds are often beaten and killed.
When we honour the victims of violence, we are also called to ask why violence happens. That call has recently been made forcefully by the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the world. The answer lies in the hatred and lack of acceptance of people who are different that leads to violence. Violence roots in prejudice; prejudice in a lack of understanding; a lack of understanding roots in the absence of deep social relationships with people who differ from us. To address it, we must walk back through these steps, beginning by reaching out to people who are different.
Finally, this day is one that most religions and humanitarian movements can endorse fully. At the heart of religion in its most genuine expressions is respect for people for their unique humanity that cuts deeper than their explicit religious faith, let alone their race, ethnicity, wealth or gender. Living religion is about life not death, harmony not violence, and love not hatred. The fact that religions have often been used to channel hatred calls on people with a strong faith tradition to foster curiosity, respect and wonder in their relationships with people outside their groups.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.