Everyone knows about the old martyrdom, when Roman emperors and angry mobs of pagan citizens put Christians to death by the thousands for their faith. It lives on in the memory of all Christians and helped form the identity of the Church for hundreds of years. But the “new martyrdom” is for some reason less well known.
This new martyrdom is going on now, and in fact has been going on for most of the past five hundred years or so.
For much of that time it was limited to Muslim lands such as the Turkish Empire, which in 1453 conquered the Byzantine Empire and subjected its Christian population to Sharia law, consigning many to death by beheading. But more recently, the new martyrdom has spread westward, to the very heart of Christendom itself.
Perhaps the shooting of Christians at Umpqua College last week, as well as those at a Charleston black church in June and at Columbine High School in 1999, were part of it.
But if so, these were small in scale compared to what took place in the Soviet Union during the first half of the twentieth century. There, from 1917 through the rule of Stalin and beyond, more than a million Christians are estimated to have been murdered for their faith. Most of them were Orthodox, as that was the largest community of believers and the main alternative to Communist ideology. Many were Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Armenian. Many faithful Jews and Muslims were killed as well. Many of the Christians who were killed were also killed because of their affiliation with political or social groupings that the Communist targeted, and in these cases the actual charges against them (if there were any) were blurred. But the totalitarian state was convinced it could not tolerate the existence of large numbers of faithful citizens because the beliefs and values of Christianity could never be conformed to the new culture being created by the state leadership.
One of the places this phase of the new martyrdom took place was the Butovo Firing Range outside Moscow.
There no fewer than 20,000 political prisoners were shot to death in a style similar to that of the Nazis in their infamous death camps. Not all of the victims at Butovo were Christians, for sure, but a good many were.
In my next post, I will talk a bit more about the experience of the new martyrdom in Russia, and reasons why those creating a new culture could not tolerate the existence of Christians in this post-Christian utopia.