SATURDAY READING: Martyrdom And The Good Of Creation — The Case Of Dorothy Stang by John Thiede

Martyrdom And The Good Of Creation — The Case Of Dorothy Stang by John Thiede

From God, Grace & Creation

In recent decades, scholars have shown renewed interest in the concept of martyrdom.  Papal documents from John Paul II and Pope Benedict reflect this interest, as does the debate of scholars as to what constitutes witnessing for the faith.  This renewed interest has sparked the imagination of a number of prominent theologians.  But some question whether the classic definition of a martyr remains helpful for the theological imagination of today.  With the advent of liberation theology and the increasing political strife in Latin America, theologians began to question what constitutes a martyr and whether the traditional definition is sufficient.  Conflicts throughout Latin America create social strife for all Christians living there.  This strife can take many forms, including political reform, economic disparity, and disputes about the use of land and other natural resources.  This essay will examine three questions.  First, what is a traditional understanding of martyrdom?  Second, how has that concept evolved or expanded in the last century?  Third, might we find an example of someone who was martyred for the good of creation?

Martyrdom: An Attempt at a Definition

Traditionally the criterion of what counted for martyrdom was simple enough.  If a person died as witness to the truth of Christianity that person counted as a martyr; such persons died, as the traditional phrase had it, in odium fidei. (Lawrence Cunningham, More Than a Memory: The discourse of Martyrdom and the Construction of Christian Identity)

If spirituality has to do essentially with our union with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, martyrdom provided in the earliest centuries of the church an ideal means to such union.  Martyrdom’s importance was rooted in its close connection with Christ’s own death and resurrection.  To be put to death for the faith, that is, to be martyred (literally to become a “witness”), was to experience ahead of schedule the final eschatological event. (Richard McBrien, Catholicism)

The history of martyrdom finds its roots in nascent Christianity.  Tradition holds that almost all of the apostles died for their faith.  The Acts of the Apostles relates the tale of the proto-martyr Stephen, and Roman writings document the death of early Christians.  From the Coliseum to the cross, until the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire, thousands of early Christians died for their faith.  The word martyr comes from the Greek Μάρτνς, meaning witness.  Simply put, a martyr is a person who dies for the faith, and usually at the hands of a non-Christian.  Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Perpetua, and Felicity are all classic examples of martyrs.  The twentieth century brought a new breed of martyr, one who fights for justice, usually against a government or oppressive regime.  Blessed Miguel Pro serves as one example of a martyr who was later beatified.  This also suggests the need for a new typology of martyrs appropriate to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Lawrence Cunningham writes, “It has been argued by more than one scholar that more Christians died because they were Christians in the twentieth century than all those who died over the course of the three centuries of Roman persecution.”  Some of these have included Christians who died in violent attacks, Christians who died in the Russian gulags, Polish priests killed in concentration camps in World War II Germany, and Christians suppressed in China, Japan, and India, or Islamic countries such as Albania.  But a new phenomenon seen in the last century also includes violence against Christians in purportedly Christian countries.

At the end of the last century in Latin America, many Christians died at the hands of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters, often for differences in political ideology.  While these men and women died defending their beliefs, they were not martyrs in the technical sense of the word.  Cunningham asserts, “In the Roman world the case for martyrdom was clear.  Christians suffered and died because in the minds of the Romans they did not show pietas to the Roman pantheon of gods and in that refusal, seemed to be a treacherous fifth column undermining the legitimacy of the Roman state.  In our terms, the matter is more complex.”

The matter is complex, and one must question whether or not a new definition of martyrdom might be helpful.  Cunningham begs the question, “Finally, were those lay people, religious sisters, priests and bishops (like Oscar Romero) who were assassinated by the death squads in El Salvador Christian martyrs or the targets of political assassins?”  One could say that they were martyrs in a broad sense, making the claim on the grounds that they did witness against false claims, and sought to love others in the midst of regimes or political instruments of destruction and hate.

For this reason, some theologians want to broaden the concept of martyrdom.  Cunningham states, “Theologians as early as Thomas Aquinas and as recently as Karl Rahner have asked for a more generous understanding of martyrdom as a complex response to death involving fortitude, faith, love, and a willingness to die for truth.”  Our modern times may lead us to look for new definitions as Christians continue to die for their faith.  In fact, Cunningham sets down a set of criteria for what might constitute a modern martyr.  He writes,

Following up on Rahner’s challenge, some contemporary commentators have set out expanded criteria for the assessment of martyrdom.  They generally indicate three such criteria: (1) The person must have been executed or died as a direct result of mistreatment; (2) the person responsible for the death must have either had a hatred for the faith or some virtues annexed to, and flowing from the faith; and (3) the putative martyr must have had some sense that his or her activities might well cost them persecution at a minimum with the probability of death.  Even using those criteria one must act with subtlety and discrimination.

Pope John Paul II also argued for a broadened sense of the term.  Of the hundreds canonized during his papacy, one finds many examples of martyrs, both traditional and non-traditional.  In his 1995 encyclical he writes, “In a theocentric vision, we Christians already have a common martyrology.  This also includes the martyrs of the present century, more common than one might think, and it shows at a profound level, God preserves communion among the baptized in the supreme demand of faith, manifested in the sacrifice of life itself.”  One need not look far to find examples of the many modern-day martyrs canonized by John Paul II.  Edith Stein and other Christians who died in the gulags in the former Soviet Union or at the hand of the Nazis during World War II provide interesting examples.

Martyrdom Today

The movement to expand the concept of martyrdom began in a 1983 volume of Concilium titled, Martyrdom Today, in which Karl Rahner called for just such an expansion.  He began the essay by affirming that the traditional concept of martyrdom was not in dispute, but that he wanted to explore the concept of martyrdom in the face of some worthy contemporary struggles.  For Rahner, the action of martyrdom is important, but so is the intention.  Such a martyr might die for the faith, although he or she may not intend to.  Their active witness is not a suicidal intention, but one that takes place as a consequence of their faith.

In this essay, Rahner particularly wants us to examine the situation in Latin America.  What happens when Christians are killing fellow Christians?  He asks the question, “But, for example, why should not someone like Bishop Romero, who died while fighting for justice in society, a struggle he waged out of the depths of his conviction as a Christian – why should he not be a martyr?  Certainly he was prepared for his death.”  In this question, he shifts the focus from the traditional idea of what constitutes a martyr.  The modern problematic brings an inconceivable case: a Christian bishop killed by soldiers, ordered by a lieutenant and perhaps even a general who were purportedly devout Catholics.  What Rahner points out as strange is that these contemporary Christians do not receive a death sentence and can sometimes be killed anonymously.  Many of those killed in Latin America, including religious, priests, and laity, were never sentenced in a court.  They were just systematically slain.  These anonymous forms of death clash with the traditional concept of a martyr.

However Rahner believes these more complicated cases qualify for martyrdom.  He takes a case familiar to him: “What is in fact strange is that the church has canonized Maximillian Kolbe as a confessor and not a martyr.  An unprejudiced approach would pay more attention to how he behaved in the concentration camp and at his death than to his earlier life and would see him as a martyr of selfless Christian love.”  Even Rahner admits it is difficult to distinguish between an active struggle that leads to death for the faith and a more passive endurance that leads to martyrdom.  But what the two cases hold in common is that ultimately both explicitly and decidedly accept death for Christian reasons.  Rahner writes, “In both cases death is the acceptance of the death of Christ, an acceptance which as the supreme act of love and fortitude puts the believer totally at God’s disposal, which represents the most radical unity in action of love and of enduring the ultimate helplessness in the face of man’s incomprehensible yet effective rejection of God’s self-revealing love.”

Rethinking Martyrdom

Twenty years after the volume, Martyrdom Today, Jon Sobrino helped edit a response entitled, Rethinking Martyrdom.  This issue revisits the Concilium articles of 1983, taking on the task of re-characterizing what constitutes a martyr.  Sobrino’s hand is evident in the introduction, which asserts that it is indeed important to return to the subject since “the present situation once more requires a general re-think, and this by its nature involves ‘re-thinking martyrdom.’”  This Concilium volume has three main tasks.  First, these articles show that twenty years after the first volume on martyrdom, the world as a whole remains cruel.  Ethnic conflicts, poverty, and oppression produce people who respond with mercy “and for this reason they are violently and unjustly killed without being able to mount any defense.”  Those who die from within the Christian tradition will be called “Jesus martyrs” because “they die like Jesus, and because they have lived, worked, and struggled as he did.”

Second, this Concilium issue shows the effects of suicide attacks and terrorism in our world and raises several questions.  Is a church that speaks about martyrs on the side of the victims or the victimizers?  That is to say, does the church defend the victims or aid those who repress the helpless?  Others question whether theologians might be seen as persecuted in the twentieth and present centuries.  And it is noted that the fanaticism of suicide bombing can generate an extreme sort of ambiguity as to what constitutes a martyr.

Third, this volume attempts to give a name to the crucified peoples.  Crucial here is the issue of whether or not the deaths of millions of human beings due to poverty, war, hunger, and AIDS are being taken seriously by church and society.  Sobrino argues that those who give up their lives in the attempt to take these people down from the cross may be martyrs.  In this way, Sobrino writes, “if we take the ‘Jesus martyrs’ and the ‘crucified peoples’ together, the reality of martyrdom provides the world with light, hope, and an appeal.’”

In his chapter, “Our World: Cruelty and Compassion,” Sobrino asserts that martyrdom is a historical concept.  One could depict the twentieth century as a time of suffering, a time in which victims and victimizers come to the forefront, and a time when some are moved to compassion.  As Sobrino asserts, “there are people who, faced with victims, react and defend them in various ways – solidarity movements, human rights movements, anti-globalization protests – and sometimes do so to the very end.”  Bluntly, many times those who defend the victims wind up dying for their compassionate action.  These deaths are sometimes not the same as the traditional definition of the martyr; that is to say, their deaths do not occur “in the course of witnessing to faith.”  For this reason Sobrino makes a bold claim, key to his appeal to expand the definition of martyrdom:

In our time, “martyrdom” has, then, taken on a new form.  Many men and women have suffered violent deaths not on account of their witness to faith but because of the compassion that stems from their faith.  In the church, these have been bishops and sisters, catechists and delegates of the word; in civil society, they have ranged from peasants and indigenous inhabitants to students, lawyers, and journalists.  In one way and another, they have unmasked the lie used to cover over the death of the poor and have struggled against injustice.  They have been people of compassion against cruelty.

But Sobrino goes even further to say that we need to take into account hundreds of thousands of human beings who have been slaughtered without the chance to flee.  He cites as examples El Mozote in El Salvador, the genocide in Rwanda, and the millions of refugees who live in situations of permanent destitution that lead to death.  This new historical context forces us to rethink our concept of martyrdom.

The Case of Dorothy Stang: A Martyr for the Good of Creation

Dorothy Stang was a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who worked for almost forty years for and with the poor in the Amazonia region of Brazil.  Born in Dayton, Ohio, she entered religious life at the age of seventeen, after attending the Notre Dame Sisters’ Julienne High School in Dayton.  She was one of the middle children of a Catholic family of ten, and early on she expressed an interest in being a missionary and going to China.  But after brief stints in Ohio and Arizona as a school teacher, she eventually was sent to a new missionary endeavor in Brazil.  Over time, she moved deeper and deeper into the Amazon rain forest.  She and her pastoral team initially focused on sacramental ministry, forming hundreds of lay leaders in Christian communities, “communidades de base.

After years of work, she grew frustrated with the extreme poverty of the many and the extreme wealth of a few.  Poor peasant farmers, who enjoyed almost no rights, were often moved off large sectors of land when a rich farmer or multinational company wanted to develop the rain forest.  She began to work with the people to raise their consciousness about their rights, and she often advocated for those who were thrown off their land through the legal system.  Part of their ability to organize came from the relationships the people had formed in the Christian base communities, and the people saw in Dorothy a teacher, mentor, and friend.

Her hunger for justice led her to join those who called for protection of the Amazon rain forest, and particularly those advocating a symbiotic relationship between the people and the Earth that would result in sustainable farming.  In the 1990s United Nations documents showed that the region of Pará lost as much as 70 percent of its vegetation to various forms of development and deforestation.  This represented as much as one third of total lost vegetation in all of Brazil.  As Stang saw the beauty of the forest being ravaged, she became more passionate about saving it from destruction.

In 1991, while on leave from Brazil for a sabbatical in the U.S., she attended a seminar on creation spirituality.  She studied the evolution of this spirituality from its exemplars in the Middle Ages, such as Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich, to more contemporary thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox.  Dorothy found creation spirituality, which emphasized the human family living in communion with the Earth, to be naturally allied with liberation theology and the struggles for justice in Latin America.  She could apply this theology to her work with rural farmers and emphasize sustainable farming while protecting the natural resources of the land.  Shortly after her return to Brazil, she attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  The goal of the summit was to formulate an understanding of development that would support socioeconomic development while preventing the deterioration of the environment.  She continued working for sustainable development in addition to her work with the Christian base communities until her death.

In the year 2002, the tension between rural farmers, large farmers, and multinational companies increased dramatically.  Between 2002 and 2003, over one hundred people were killed in the Amazon, with the majority in the region where Dorothy worked.  In response, Dorothy increased her advocacy attempts and was very outspoken in her opposition to the large logging and ranching companies.  In return, vicious rumors were spread about her, including that she was a communist or an agent of the United States.  Some of the landowners published a secret list on which her name appeared with a bounty offered of 50,000 reales (US $20,000).  In spite of the threats against her, she continued her efforts, and the Brazilian Lawyers Organization for Human Rights honored her for her work in remote villages with the Chico Mendes medal.

In January of 2005 a group of ranchers and loggers met in secret to discuss how to get rid of Dorothy, and two of the ranchers said they would pay to have her killed.  On her way to a meeting with rural farmers in February, Dorothy Stang walked through a magnificent canopy of trees in the rain forest.  Two men stepped in front of her, blocking her path.  When they searched her for weapons, she replied that the only weapon that she had was her Bible, and she read from the Beatitudes, “Bless are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  After she finished reading she blessed them, and when she turned to leave they called her name.  She raised her hand in defense, still holding her Bible as if to shield herself.  The first bullet passed through her hand before lodging in her abdomen.  She was then shot through the shoulder, and after she was down, she was shot four times in the head.  Her death was witnessed by one of the farmers who had hidden in the bushes.  He later identified the killers, leading to their arrest and a lengthy trial.

After her death, the outcry was substantial.  Hundreds of people joined a large funeral procession in Anapu, Brazil.  Word of her death made international news, and two local bishops presided at her funeral.  The image that was used at her burial was that of a seed.  Dorothy was a seed planted for the good of creation.  Many religious leaders acknowledged Dorothy as both a martyr and a model for all believers who long for justice.  The account of her death became a rallying cry for all who labor with the poor.

A New Model of Martyrdom

Dorothy serves as an example of the expansion of the concept of martyrdom that Rahner, Sobrino, and others have advocated.  She definitively meets two of the three criteria previously outlined: She died as a direct result of mistreatment, and she knew that her activities might lead to persecution or even death.  It is more difficult to argue that her death fits the second criterion of virtue.  The men who killed her did not kill her explicitly because she was a member of a religious congregation, but they did kill her because she spoke out against the landowners and on behalf of the rain forest.  They killed her because of her virtuous actions on behalf of the poor and of the environment.  When she saw that poor farmers were not being treated justly and that the forest was being destroyed, she decided to speak out.

She also fits Sobrino’s new category of martyrdom.  She died a violent death because of her compassion for the poor and concern for God’s creation.  She used her compassion to bring to light the struggle for justice in the Amazon rain forest.  Her death stemmed directly from her faith, as she stood up for the poor when others would have walked over them and taken away their land.  Her faith also led her to speak against those who would hurt God’s creation by clear cutting the Amazon rain forest.  As a woman religious who catechized and organized among the rural poor in Brazil, employing a creation spirituality, Sister Dorothy Stang serves as an example of a martyr for the good of creation.  Her living memory stands as a witness as she helps us to remember the anonymous Brazilian farmers who have also died, but whose names will never be recounted in any martyrology.


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