Dr. Guntis Kalme: On the Theology of martyrdom

International Conference of Confessional Lutheran Churches in Saldus Gregor’s School, 6-8.02.2020.

Persecutions are not anything new or unusual for the Church. They are significant not merely as a fact of history but much more as a constitutive quality or as Dr. M.Luther says – it is a mark of the Church.

Definition and cause of persecutions

Persecutions are violent, physical and/or spiritual confrontation of opposing physical/spiritual forces with the Church as body of Christ. It is an uncompromising conflict between their basic principles, essences, values. M.Luther gives us the in-depth reason: For the world and the devil do not attack and plague us because of secular matters or because we have merited or caused it. The only reason is that we believe this Lord and confess His Word. Otherwise they would be in agreement with us, and we would be at peace with them.[1]

Thus, Christians are being persecuted because of their testimony to their Savior who is substantially different, strange, alien (the radical Other?) to this world. His words contain the God’s spirit (thus – overwordly power!) and life (not of this world): The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6, 63 ESV).

Persecutions starts when and where compromise between the world, its principles and powers and the Church is not possible and when the Christian witness comes to the point of bloody testimony.

Non-transitory nature of persecutions

Consistent Christian faith merely by its very existence calls forth reaction of the world – it was the case in the Ancient Church, during the Reformation and the Communist Era and it will continue in the future as well. The reason for this is simple – because the ontological and axiological realities of the Church and world, Christ and Satan are too different, often contradictory.

Therefore, persecutions are neither accidental nor transitory. The Church has always opposed any kind of utopian thinking. It would not be appropriate to think of its own future in terms of progressivism, as if Christians were gaining more and more social, political and spiritual influence in the world. No, Christ Himself says: Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake (Mt 24:9). Persecutions merely change their physical territory, way of expression, intensity and particular addressee. Once they will be total: you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved (Mt 10:22).

The inevitability of persecutions (we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know (1 Thes 3:4b)) is caused by the very fact of Christ’s Incarnation and His mission.

Non-worldliness of Christ’s message

  1. Jesus says of Himself and of His message: My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Therefore, reaction from this world is so violent against this principally and substantially foreign body: the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19). As Luther says: it is the blind world’s nature to condemn and persecute the truth and the children of God and yet consider this no sin (LC, 262).

Even today Christ is still persecuted in His disciples, His Church and in refusal of His message. M.Luther puts it so vividly: The Word of God must undergo the most shameful and spiteful persecution and blasphemy.[2] Our liturgy is still reflecting this. Didn’t we answer during our Confirmation to the question: Do you intend to continue in this Confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it? with: – I do so intend with the help of God.[3] Haven’t we sung: In faith, Lord let me serve You/ when persecution, grief, and pain/ from you, Lord, seek to swerve me/ Let me a steadfast trust retain?[4] Jesus says: A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master (Mt 10:24) therefore disciples share the fate of their Teacher.

  • Christian faith by its very existence is a declaration of war on the unbelief, sinfulness and profanity which rules in the world. Christ Himself has come to the fight: Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Mt 10:34).

Totalitarian attitude towards the Church

The Church by its mere existence and ministry represents a reality that is not subject to the worldly powers. Totalitarian regime which represents the very essence of the secularism, worldliness cannot endure any other power nearby them. In turn the Church functions as God’s ‘embassy’ to the world. It not only proclaims, but carries a new, divine reality into the totalitarian regime-controlled society. That is why the Church and the totalitarian regime necessarily confronts each other and conflicts.

By political instinct, every dictatorship perceives the Church’s divine authority (We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29) as an ideological competitor and a threat to its totalitarian ambition. Thus, mere existence of the Church ran contrary to the state’s mono – ideology, Communism, and its official religion, atheism.

Zigmunds Balevics (1933-1987), the main atheist ideologue of Soviet Latvia, expressed the Communist understanding of the role of the Church: In the phase of the developed Socialism Religion is the only legal and still influential form of an ideological opposition.[5]

Thus, conflict between the Church and the worldly powers (especially totalitarian ones) is inevitable. And this conflict from time to time will produce new and new confessors and martyrs.

In case of totalitarian anti-godliness its spirit is intensified to the radical implications, therefore it so sharply reacts to the spiritual power of the Christian faith.

The former secret agent of the KGB Sergei Kourdakov remembers instructions by the KGB Colonel Ivan Azarov before raiding secret Christian home worship services in order to beat them to death: we are not endangered by [institutional] religion but by faith! Faith is our greatest enemy! It is very difficult to eradicate faith from the human heart. Their faith is alive in their hearts.[6]

Since God is supernatural, the Christian values rooted in Him are beyond the range of socio – political manipulation. The total submission of a person is possible only by pushing God out of the discourse on the nature of man’s being (as Karl Marx’s definition of a human suggests in his 6th Thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach) thus reducing him to a mere social being: the essence of man .. is the ensemble of the social relations.[7] Taking into consideration that the only allowed relations in the Communist society were the ones which were tightly controlled by the regime, man was turned into a Soviet puppet – economic, political, social, military etc. one. This is exactly what the totalitarian regime aimed to achieve by implementing the ideological maxim of the new Soviet man, and the Soviet people.

Totalitarianism manifests itself by totally submitting the secular sphere to its political power. Totalitarian atheistic secularity is not just godless – rather, it stands in clear enmity against God. Atheist totalitarianism idolizes and ideologizes secularity. The regime separates the world from God. Belligerent atheism is the logical, necessary component of the totalitarian Soviet state. This is what made the Soviet Union into the Empire of Evil in a metaphysical sense.

Church’s attitude towards totalitarianism

It is naiveté to picture Christian Church to be innocent before the Caesars of past and present. From the very beginning the Church has not merely questioned spiritual foundations of any power which is striving to become an absolute dominance but it has de-absolutized and de-divinized them; thus, at its ultimate expression committing crime against the ruling powers.

No power would like to have such critique nearby much less provided by absolute criteria. This tension of Church and worldly power will not cease as long as the Church exists. As in the military war it is nonsense to complain that the enemy is hostile so in the same way it is improper for the Church to complain about the persecutions. Rev. Dr. Roberts Feldmanis (1910-2002) when offered to have an official rehabilitation (excuse) from the State about being sent for 10 years in Gulag camps refused it answering: I do not regret even one day I spend there.

Persecutions are constitutive part of the Church. The Church is only the persecuted (physically, socially, religiously, politically, culturally etc.) Church. The Church is only the Church of Christ in the degree to which it is prepared to live in such a way that it sees its normal practice as sharing the fate of the martyr Jesus Christ.[8]

M.Luther speaking about the Church’s marks after mentioning God’s word, sacraments, absolution, divine service, and priesthood ends with the holy Cross as its final and summarizing(!) quality. The cross of the persecutions is the mark of the enemy which in such a way evaluates the truthfulness of Church’s ministry, its faithfulness to what it is doing, its real trust in God’s promises and the degree to which the previous six marks have been implemented. Therefore, CRUX sola est nostra theologia.[9]

Thus, the statement: The Church, following Christ, not only has martyrs, but is Church of martyrs[10] is right. It does not mean that Christians should artificially make conflicts with the world. No, strive for peace with all men (Heb. 12:14). It simply means that the basic a priori of the Church and that of the world are different and we should not hide this fact either from the world or from ourselves.

Martyr’s personality

A martyr is a Christian whom God has chosen to be His instrument, His voice, His self-expression, even through the violent persecutions.

There is nothing romantic about being persecuted. As from Christ all the clothing was taken off so that nothing could cover His shame, so from His disciples at the martyrdom all their human physical, emotional, intellectual abilities and possibilities to defend themselves are taken off. They are left just with their faith and trust to their Lord.

Martyrdom is a special mission which God blesses with the specific gifts: do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say (Lk 12:11-12).

The Theology of Martyrdom is very practical (however, it has never been included among other disciplines of Practical theology) in the sense of its applicability to live and to die by.

Persecution presses the Christian more and more to accept a confessing attitude; on the other hand, his human nature presses him back to safer and more comfortable attitude of a mediocre existence. Thus, the inner attitude of a Christian is always fluctuating in between these two alternatives:

Subject Mediocre Confessing
Christ Friend, comrade, companion, “bright image” The Lord
Commandments Ethical code Borders of existence
Way of life Christian comfort, well-being Danger
Risk There is no risk; man tends to preserve the inner comfort There is no more risk for the whole existence is under the danger
Safety Christian faith must be preserved Christian faith preserves
Point of support Christian culture, Christian sociality Christ Himself
Relationships with the world Compromises Conflict
Meaning of life   To preserve existing social etc. status quo and to increase it   To preserve and increase existing status quo of the faith  

Blessings of the persecutions for the Church

Hans von Dach (1927-2003), Swiss Army major, an expert on Civil Resistance, says: The fight against the Church also has its positive aspects. It separates the former followers from the truly faithful. When the Church makes sacrifices it will gain a closer relationship to those portions of the population which, until now, have remained aloof from its efforts and aims. When the Church is being persecuted it will be able to do real missionary work. The greatest difficulties and highest chances of success are thus directly related.[11]

Thus the martyred Church is carrying out God’s policy of expanding and deepening His kingdom in the world despite all the risks. M.Luther testifies that For the sake of the faith and the Word of God, it is very good, advantageous, and wholesome thing to have enemies and persecutors. Incalculable consolation and benefits are derived from them.[12] When they shed innocent blood, this blood of the Christians is to act as a fertilizer on the field, making it rich and productive. For through persecution Christianity grows; conversely, Christians become lazy and lax when conditions are peaceful and quiet.[13] Thus, persecutions reveal the Church’s purpose of existence even for herself (if she has forgotten it or has become too worldly) – proclamation, mission, evangelization. It occurs in conditions when nobody can doubt sincerity and truthfulness of her faith.

If the Church is not doing her mission heartily her Lord will bless it with persecutions in order to get the message out truthfully. In one or another way the Word will be proclaimed.

But – the Church exists and thus martyrdom is possible and meaningful until there are absolutes to be held. It is another matter whether there is actual strength and courage to belong to them to the very death. But – until there are absolutes there is a definite and real hope for that. Not so any more in the postmodern relativized understanding. Therefore, if the relativized world view takes over than their luthers will confess: here I stand but I can do otherwise as well. Or as Groucho Marx (1890-1977), American comedian puts it: These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others.[14] If the absolutes are gone than also martyrdom for them as well.

There is already saying that the Christians of the Ancient Church has been given to lions to tear them in pieces while modern Christians are given to the mice of the world (seemingly insignificant, relatively small, piece-by-piece bites of the persecuting world, – so called salami effect) which is more dangerous because it is gradual and is not obvious, evident. Church has become marginalized bit by bit (both for objective and subjective reasons), given opportunities to work only where it is in accord with the world (social, philanthropic, welfare, entertainment, cultural, educational) but refused its prophetic function.

For instance, if the main question of theology until the 16th century was the salvation of mankind, nowadays it is about the nature of God’s creation. Namely, the very order of creation defines the borders of normality of human identity (physical, sexual, social, etc.). The consequences of ignoring or defiant violation of these borders by ideology of ultraliberalism results in the loss of the common sense and as a consequence of it – in rapid degeneration of humanity itself. As social thinkers suggest such speculative ideological construct of the ultraliberalism as political correctness[15] et al ultimately endangers our own human identity. If the theological mistake until the 16th century made the salvation of people difficult, then this mistake of our era endangers not only European identity, but ultimately the very existence of mankind as such.

And here the Church has much to say and therefore – much to suffer for what she has to confess from the modern (and/or postmodern) persecutions or to suffer the judgement from her Lord if she chooses to conform to the world. Let us make our confessing stand now.


[1] WA 41, 119f.

[2] Large Catechism, 262.

[3] Lutheran Worship, Agenda, CPH, St. Louis, 1984, p. 111

[4] Lutheran Worship, Hymnal, CPH, St. Louis, 1982, 354 : 3

[5] Balevics, Z. Ateisms – kompleksi saistībā ar dzīvi. In: Vējš, Jānis, red. Ateistiskās audzināšanas efektivitāte (Rīga, 1980), 37.

[6] Kourdakov, Sergei. The Persecutor, Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1973, 126-7.

[7] Marx, K., Theses On Feuerbach, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/

[8] Boff, Leonardo. ‘Martyrdom: An Attempt at Systematic Reflection’ in Johannes-Baptist Mets and Edward Schillebeeckx. Ed. Martyrdom Today. New York∙ Seabury ∙ Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983, p. 12

[9] WA 5, 176.

[10] Boff, L. Ibid., p. 16

[11] Hans von Dach, The Total Resistance, Boulder: Paladin Press, 1965, p. 100

[12] WA I, 1, 543.

[13] WA 52, 602.

[14] https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/09/groucho-principles/

[15] Cynthia Roper, Political correctness (PC). “Those who are most strongly opposed to so-called “political correctness” view it as censorship and a curtailment of freedom of speech that places limits on debates in the public arena. They contend that such language boundaries inevitably lead to self-censorship and restrictions on behaviour.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/political-correctness

At its worst, political correctness is nothing different form Orwell’s Newspeak – an attempt to change the way people think by forcibly changing the way they speak. 

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=political%20correctness

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