How to Avoid Becoming a Guilty Bystander in This Age of Martyrs

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Peter's Denial”
Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Peter's Denial” (photo: Public Domain)

Images of poor Christians being tortured and killed on the nightly news makes me feel sick. And sad. I say a prayer. And then I continue making dinner.  I will pray again later during family prayers. That’s been pretty much it because what else can someone cooking dinner in North Dakota do?

We all hate what is happening to our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters.  And it's getting worse. The number of church attacks and Christians killed rose dramatically last year. Yet, hearing about it makes us feel powerless and even somewhat callous because we simply carry on with our next activity as if none of this was happening.

Pope Francis has called the genocide against Christians a “third world war.”   He wants us to cry out and demand an end to it. We are told to unite with our dear Christian brothers and sisters.  But how?

Witness for Christ

The Catholic Church celebrates our martyrs.  Tertullian of Carthage, the 2nd-century Church Father is often quoted as saying, “The more you mow us down, the more we grown in number.  The blood of Christians is seed.”  But here we are, in the 21st century and Christian martyrdom has not gone away. 

Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s latest book, To The Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness examines the reality of martyrdom—a most compelling testimony for Christ.  “By their death martyrs tell the world, beginning with their persecutors, that Christian faith is worth the price no matter how high,” he wrote. 

Yet, he pointed out that not even Jesus suggested we go looking for it. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23).  It is testimony to the twisted thinking of terrorists that they consider killing themselves while killing others to be martyrdom.  Cardinal Wuerl explained, “Martyrs are called, not self-appointed.  They are brave, but they know their weakness and vulnerability.  They recognize their fears, but they subordinate all earthly fears to the fear of the Lord.” 

Wuerl recalled an example of the powerful witness of martyrdom last February on a beach in Libya.  Soldiers from the Islamic state beheaded twenty-one men. 
“Twenty of the victims were Coptic Christians,” he wrote. “The lone exception was a man so moved by the example of his fellow prisoners that he uttered the unforgettable line:  ‘Their God is my God.’” 

Yet no amount of fruit from martyrdom makes it a sought-after activity.  Wuerl decries the annihilation of Christianity in the Middle East where in Iraq, for example, the Christian population has fallen by 90 percent.  He also sternly chastises the silence from the news media, heads of states and government entities. 

What We Can Do

“When atrocities happen, there are many guilty parties,” Wuerl stated. “There are perpetrators, and there are those whom Thomas Merton called “guilty bystanders.”

He reminds us that St. Paul taught: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (Corinthians 12:26-27).

Rather than feeling powerless, Cardinal Wuerl’s book has inspired me to do more.  He offers suggestions on how every Christian can act on behalf of the suffering members of the body of Christ.

  • Pray for them Daily.  “This is the most pressing need. Are we praying that persecuted Christians will remain strong in the face of unimaginable pressures to abandon the Faith?”
  • Write Legislators and media.  Where are the voices of parliaments, congresses, campuses, business networks, community leaders talk show hosts, news programs, editorial columns, etc.?  “Each of us simply needs to use whatever forum available to make our voices heard.”
  • Contribute financially.  Give to one of the many organizations that help Christians in persecuted lands.
  • Seek out refugees in our cities and help them settle in their new home.
  • Pray for the persecutors.
  • Leave no spiritual stone unturned.  Light a candle, have Masses said, have a group rosary, offer up your own suffering, and pray the Chaplet of Mercy.  These latter suggestions are my own, but the point is, that we can pour our spiritual energy into supporting persecuted Christians.

Make it Personal

It’s easy to turn away when all we have in front of us is a dinner to make, or some other activity easier than death and torture.  But what if it was us waiting to get our heads cut off?  What if we were the ones that had to watch a loved one get beaten and killed?

Our love and prayers can be with them.  We can pray for them the same as we would pray for a family member or ourselves.  In the mystical body of Christ, we are united.   And when their martyrdom is carried out and they reach heaven, surely they will know the effect of our prayers and pray for us in return. 

Today’s martyrs are no less than those we’ve admired through the ages, St. Peter and the apostles, St. John the Baptist, St. Joan of Arc, St. Stephen, St. Isaac Jogues, St Thomas More…and so many more.  In this world where Christianity is often treated as an impediment to society, we have our own persecutions and opportunities for witnessing our faith.  We can unite those sufferings with the martyrs and trust that they too will pray for us from their glorious places in heaven.