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Why We Tell Our Kids the Stories of the Martyrs

Is it morbid of us to tell our kids the stories of the Christian martyrs, both ancient and new? Or by giving them these ‘resurrection stories,’ are we showing them the way to pass through pain and suffering to a new and larger life?


by Jerry Windley-Daoust


Our five-year-old had us cracking up laughing in the middle of the sorrowful mysteries the other night. We were on the fourth sorrowful mystery—“The Carrying of the Cross”—and I had suggested as an intention for the decade that we be given the courage and strength to carry our own crosses.

That’s when the five-year-old piped up.

“What?” he exclaimed. “You mean we have to carry a cross?”

It was the jaw-dropped, eyebrows raised expression accompanying this that cracked us up. Yes, honey (we told him), being Christian involves a little crucifixion.

This is not news to our older kids. Pretty much every night, we read one of the stories of the saints from the Give Us This Day lectionary; about half of them conclude with the saint’s martyrdom. Over the years, we’ve cataloged every conceivable way of being martyred. We’ve heard about saints who were crucified, thrown to wild animals, pressed, drowned, starved, gassed, hung upside down over a pit of dead bodies, shot, killed by disease, buried, burned, roasted, frozen, hung, stabbed, and beheaded, to offer just a partial list. And in the past year, we have also been talking about the new martyrs, the ones killed by ISIS.

I suppose this brand of storytelling probably raises some eyebrows, even though we don’t go into the gruesome details. A lot of people would prefer to shield their kids from the reality of the cross in the interest of preserving their innocence as long as possible. On one hand, I get that. We don’t allow violent media in our house for that very reason, nor will we be showing them The Passion of the Christ anytime soon.

When we look at the crucifix, we are being clear-eyed about the reality of suffering and evil in the world.

But on the other hand, it would be impossible to raise our kids as Christians without teaching them about the reality of the cross. And when I say “the reality of the cross,” I don’t mean a bare, sanitized cross, but a crucifix—one whose Christ embodies all the suffering of all the people in the world. When we look at the crucifix, or talk about the cruelty of the people doing the crucifying (ISIS and their ilk), we are being clear-eyed about the reality of suffering and evil in the world. And the longer we gaze upon the crucifix, the more clearly we see that we, too, are implicated. We may not wear black masks and supervillain costumes like the boys of ISIS, but in our way, we have participated in the crucifixion of Christ. We show our kids the crucifix in its many forms because there is and never will be any pax hominum, and we do our children no favors by pretending otherwise.

Now, if this were all there were to the story, it would be morbid of us to dwell on it, and foolish to hold it up to our kids as a way of life. If all you see when you look at the crucifix is a good man who got killed, full stop, end of story, then it would be more prudent to avoid the cross at all costs. The only way to avoid suffering and death in such a world is to be strong; what you really need, then, is a bigger gun than everyone else. You need to be able to inflict more pain on your enemies than they can inflict on you.

This is the dominant story of most human cultures. As Jared Diamond convincingly demonstrates in his book The World Until Yesterday, the default mode of primitive human societies around the world was one of near-constant warfare. And this is the story that the world wants to indoctrinate in our kids: What you see is all you get, so get while the getting is good, and be fierce in holding onto what you have, and avoid suffering and death at all costs, even if that cost is someone else’s life. Our culture has no room for the far, wide horizon of redemptive love; it is considered little more than a fantasy, a story mostly relegated to children’s books and Disney movies.

Even the Scriptures of the Old Testament—although they allow for a larger, God-inhabited world—reflect a here-and-now worldview. In the pages of the Old Testament, people are killed by their enemies because God has abandoned them, but people who kill their enemies do so with God’s help. The Old Testament does not sing songs of martyrs; more common is the song sung in praise of Saul for killing thousands, and David for killing tens of thousands (1 Samuel 18:7). The people of the Old Testament would have not hesitated to fight ISIS with its own fire; they would say that when good people kill bad people, it is a victory for God.

The Creator of the universe will give you back both breath and life.

The one exception to this dominant narrative in the Old Testament is the story of the woman and her seven sons who are slowly tortured to death for not violating the dietary laws (2 Maccabees 7). This story is notable not only for its very graphic description of the family’s martyrdom, but for its extended theology of resurrection. As her sons are being scalped, roasted alive, and dismembered, their mother says: “Since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”

Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_PeterThat, right there, is the faith by which we can exhort our own kids to imitate the Christian martyrs. For when we Christians look at the crucifix, we see not just one more example of all the ways in which good people suffer in this evil world. What we see is the Son of God, come to defeat the evil that is the source of our suffering—but not by destroying those who do evil. Instead, the Son of God takes our evil upon himself and swallows it whole, a neat little trick that he can do because God is love, and love is vastly larger than evil.

This is what we tell our kids: Love is big; evil is small, and our story is so much larger than the story the world would have you believe.

This is what we tell our kids: Love is big; evil is small, and our story is so much larger than the story the world would have you believe, because our story has been broken open by the Resurrection, which is not so much a “happy ending” as it is an unending beginning, a complete reworking of the very narrative form itself.

But is this a reliable story to be telling our kids? I tell Christian friends that the extremism that fuels ISIS and Boko Haram and Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab will be defeated not by more bombs and guns, but by way of the cross and Resurrection, and that claim makes them pretty uneasy. When it comes down to our lives—or more poignantly, our kids’ lives—do we really believe in the Resurrection?

Well, I don’t know whether we do, but to anyone on the fence, I would offer the living testimony of the Christian martyrs in their thousands and tens of thousands. That testimony begins with Peter and Paul and Stephen, good Jews who should have adhered to the old narrative; instead, they not only boldly preached the crucifixion, but were willing to be crucified themselves—not, as it is sometimes suggested, because they believed in an abstract philosophical ideal, but because they were utterly convinced that God had raised Jesus from the dead and given him a new kind of life.

martyrs-2The testimony of today’s martyrs is no less compelling. “In the end the only one you really have is God,” wrote Kayla Mueller, the young woman who sought God by serving those who suffered the ravages of war halfway around the world. “I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no else, and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.”

“Prayer enabled my freedom,” James Foley said when writing of his first captivity, during which time he prayed the rosary and prayed out loud with his cellmate. Later, those who had been held captive by ISIS with him would describe his generosity—a generosity that apparently led him to volunteer to be the first to be killed at the hands of their captors.

And then there are the twenty-one Coptic Christian martyrs chanting, even as they were executed, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Could we say the same, under such circumstances? It is hard to know without being put to a similar test. I’m not sure that I am quite ready to watch my kids be tortured to death, like the woman portrayed in 2 Maccabees. I can’t help but think of the parents of James Foley, practicing Catholics who were understandably stunned by the video of their son’s beheading.

And it’s not just our five-year-old who is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of taking up the cross. “I’m not afraid of dying,” our oldest daughter recently said, “as long as it’s quick.” To which I say: well, kid, even Pope Francis would prefer a quick death.

But I am glad to hear that she is not afraid of death, because maybe that is the story of the Resurrection taking hold in her life. We may not be able to protect our kids from suffering and death. But by giving them the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, recapitulated ten thousand times over in the lives of the martyrs, we show them a sure way through suffering and death.

And so I say to my five-year-old: Yes, little one, in the story of your life, there will be suffering; there will be death; and if you choose to take it up, there will be a cross. But this story does not end with your brokenness; there is more to it than the endings the world would write. It is a story broken open by love. Live by it, little one, with everything you have, and you will come out on the other side of the cross into freedom; and light; and a life ever so large, opened up, and opened up again, by a God big enough to swallow death.


Jerry Windley-Daoust is publisher of Peanut Butter & Grace.

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Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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