Blaise Pascal, that 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician and all around really bright guy, once said, “Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect.” And to that I say to Pascal, amen.
In other words, pardon the pun, words matter. They lost the Titanic because some words regarding icebergs ahead got scrambled in a telegraph office. I come to take a word back; just one, solitary six-letter noun. It’s not as easy as you might think. It’s certainly more problematic in an era when words get usurped, triangulated, folded and mutilated like so many failed race horses tossed into a rendering vat.
The temptation, and I have fallen into this trap myself, is to just throw one’s hands and/or dictionaries up into the air and go with the etymological flow. Unfortunately, that particular orientation makes people use the word “choice” when they’re talking about killing unborn humans, “poor judgment” when they’re describing committing a sin, and in the not-too-distant past, giving up on language facilitated the former holder of the highest office in the land being incapable of conjugating the verb “is.”
Over the past couple of decades, there has been the abuse of another word, and a word that I, as a Catholic, have a deep reverence for and am more than a little distraught over watching it be usurped. The word is “martyr.” According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the three definitions available to us for the word martyr are the following:
1: a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion.
2: a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of a principle.
It’s time to draw a line in the sand, or somewhere. I want the word “martyr” back. I think it was when I was in the second grade, right after homo sapiens began demonstrating basic tool-making capability, when we impressionable youths who still believed Soviet Backfire Bombers would be coming our way any minute, were given a pictorial book of saints. The book was old; it was probably used by kids who thought Nazi Heinkel 177 bombers were going to be coming their way any minute. But as long as you had your mother cover the book with the brown paper bag from the supermarket and its binding wasn’t the consistency of a Dead Sea Scroll, you were good to go.
We did get Bible stories as well, but this was Catholic school so we kind of skimmed through that and usually only lingered on the more exciting bits like the Flood and how God opened a can of Old Testament retribution on Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.
One of the most recurring themes in this book of saints that was being passed down from one Roman Legion-infatuated young boy to the next, was, besides their obvious sanctity and grace, most of these saints did not die of old age in their beds. In fact, it certainly seemed to us second graders that being a saint could be hazardous to one’s health.
The lexicon of Catholic saints is filled with example after example of men and women who were killed for what they believed and for what they refused to deny. We learned about St. Stephen who, while he was dragged outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, prayed for the Lord to do two things as the stones began to fall: to receive his spirit and to forgive his tormentors.
We learned of St. Lucy who was brutally murdered upon orders from the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and we learned of St. Octavian who was killed along with thousands of other Christians by a Vandal warlord. Now, other than give me a queasy feeling in the pit of my own stomach at the thought of how I might fare under similar duress, these stories left a lasting imprint on my soul.
These remarkable stories of holy men and women would rack the words of Our Lord into extreme focus when we read in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
“Martyr” was a holy word, a word of spiritual honor and deep reverence. In its purest form, the word may sometimes, and in the case of our blessed Catholic saints, many times, mean death. But the word never ever was supposed to mean what it means now, which is murder.
The Holy Innocents didn’t take any soldiers with them as they paid the ultimate price as the first Christian martyrs in recorded history. Joan of Arc had no incendiary device other than her own innocent body as she met her fate in some public square in Rouen, France.
“Martyr” is now a word that means something else entirely, as it has become intimately linked to persons and groups that believe taking lives and sacrificing their own lives is one in the same.
I am not an Islamic scholar. I am not a scholar no matter how liberally one might want to apply the term.
But I do know how to read a newspaper and watch a cable news outlet, and my memory of that second-grade book of saints lingers just enough to let me know what a martyr is, and what a martyr isn’t.
Robert Brennan writes from
Los Angeles, California.