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Twenty-one Coptic Christian men were executed in Libya last month by people claiming association with the Islamic State. The reverberations from this tragedy still echo ominously around the world, especially within the Christian community.

I’ve had misgivings about calling the murdered men “martyrs.” But I’ve been reluctant to express that for fear it sounds like I’m disrespecting them or have a soft-spot for their murderers.

Why? Why would you be reluctant to call the 21 men martyrs?

If someone went into a local coffee shop and rounded up 21 men for execution, it’s likely nearly all of them would identify as “Christians.” Does that make them martyrs? In no way do I want to denigrate the Coptic men’s deaths, or to minimize the viciousness of it. I’m simply not sure that “martyr” is an accurate and helpful term to add to the mix.

“Martyr” means “witness.” Were these 21 men witnesses for Christ? Those who killed them certainly saw them as Christians. If you randomly rounded up 21 Egyptian men in Libya, it is unlikely all would be Christian. These men were selected precisely because of their faith. They were killed for being Christians.coptic martyr 2

Does “martyr” carry any suggestion of acting or doing something that brings about one’s death, not simply being a Christian?

If they had sung a hymn as they were dying or recited a creed, would it feel more legitimate? Apparently, there is some photographic evidence of a few of the men whispering prayers in the moments before their deaths. Historically, there have been plenty of martyrs who died more for who they were than what they did.

I realize it sounds picky. Do people have to be preaching or caught in some Christian activity to be martyrs? I don’t want to say that. But 21 Christians who may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, does that make them martyrs? I’m not at all implying that they aren’t “good enough” to be martyrs. Those men suffered terribly and their families must be grieving deeply. My point is not to take anything away from them.

Then why not honor them? They are witnesses, maybe heroes. We want to remember them, even emulate them.

What would it mean to emulate them?

They were known or identifiable as Christians. They don’t seem to have wavered in that. They didn’t renounce their faith. They seem to have died nobly. All that is worth emulating.

True enough. Although your claims still have a lot of “apparentlys” and “seems” in them.

If it isn’t about the men themselves, then what are your concerns?

Part of it is the rush to make them martyrs. I remember after the Columbine school-shooting, there was a big push in the American Christian media to make one of the victims a martyr because “she said yes.” Later, much of that report was shown not to be accurate. Somewhat similarly, I think of the young boy who recently recanted about his near-death experience that was the basis for the best-seller, Heaven is for Real. We jump on a bandwagon without really checking it out. Now I know more about how baseball players are elected to the Hall of Fame than I understand the Catholic canonization process for sainthood, but in both there is a built-in waiting-period. There is wisdom in that patience and full exploration.

Why the concern with going “too fast”? Do we need to be slow or stingy about honoring people?

If in the future we discover things that change our understanding of this tragedy, I think it hurts Christian credibility and undermines martyrdom. Moreover, when there is a rush, is it really about giving honor to the deceased, or is it about our needs, our reactivity, our volatility and vitriol? It feels like Christian chest-thumping.

Twenty-one men were murdered ruthlessly and senselessly. Your concerns are so theoretical and distant. Why the reluctance to feel the pain and be outraged by the atrocity?

I fully acknowledge the pain and atrocity. But I wonder if by ratcheting up the rhetoric and sacralizing this tragedy, we aren’t doing the wrong thing. We’re increasing the alarm and terror, adding apocalyptic elements. I also wonder if we aren’t doing exactly what the murderers want us to do. They want to stir fiery responses. They want it to take on religious dimensions. ISIS is an evil genius when it comes to provocation. They know how to push buttons and touch sensitivities. They understand the power of symbolism. To make the victims into martyrs only furthers the murderers’ intentions. It adds a holy dimension and fuels the call to war.

You are the one letting ISIS dictate the terms. Why worry about what the murderers may or may not want? Why let them take even more from the victims and their loved ones? As for making it holy, yes I suppose I do think these deaths are holy.

You’ve got some good thoughts. Nonetheless, I’ve got to say my ambivalence remains.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Rev. John Castricum says:

    It is my understanding from reliable Church historians that being a martyr in the Early Church was not dying for being a Christian. It was openly stating you are a Christian, and living with the consequences, which, during certain times, would mean persecution and death. How does this relate to the Coptic Christian tragedy at the hands of ISIS?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I really like your ambivalence on this. Good questions. I think, however they would count as martyrs for the uses of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Not that Foxe is the determinant, but the use he made of that word would probably include the Copts in question.

  • Thanks, Steve. I find myself agreeing with you. As a historian and a Christian, I hesitate to dub these victims as “martyrs” until more is known about them. Maybe they are, but let us not rush. As to Foxe’s definition, I am no expert on him. But, if I understand the context for his book, he selected those who were, in his view, witnessing to the authentic (i.e., non-Catholic) gospel.

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