The Anchoress today linked to a story in the National Catholic Reporter about a woman in North Korea who was executed for the “crime” of distributing Bibles.

Well, the gulags and executions in North Korea are an under-covered story in the West, at least until National Geographic’s roving reporter got arrested for “spying” a couple months ago…and the numbers of political prisoners in such a small country are staggering:

 The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates the number of political prisoners at 200,000; the State Department puts it at between 150,000 and 200,000. Political offenses include such crimes as sitting on a newspaper that contains a picture of dictator Kim Jong Il. Punishment is often collective and can extend to three generations of the offender’s entire family.

One has to realize that Christianity was originally brought to Korea by…Koreans. And although missionaries soon followed, the faith was not associated with a “foreign” regime: indeed, many Koreans were martyred, first by the repressive Monarchy, and later by the Japanese government during the time when Korea was a Japanese colony, and native Koreans had few civil rights.

One tends to forget that the word “martyr” doesn’t mean someone dying for their faith, but someone who is a witness.

Many of the Korean martyrs, like those of ancient Rome or those in the Reformation bloodbaths, were witnesses that there is a Truth beyond that of the government: and that they stood by that truth even when  faced with death or exile.

In the twentieth century, the martyrs of communism ran into the millions. I once heard the figure that over 100 thousand Russian Orthodox clergy were killed by the communists, at a time when the western elites were fawning about Lenin and Stalin building the world of the future.

That’s all behind us now, right? We are people of reason, and no one, even those stupid enough to pretend to believe in God, are stubborn enough to suffer for that belief, right?

Ah, but this is not true. Usually the  cynical are busy painting “suicide bombers” as martyrs, as if killing oneself and others in the name of hatred is religion.

This ignores the quiet believers who see God as the great reality, “the love that moves the sun and other stars”, who calls the stars by name, yet knows when the sparrow falls, and who stoops to care for the poor and exults the lowly.

In this reality, doing one’s daily work can itself be a prayer or a “witness” to that reality, whether it be a kind word while shopping in the Palenke, comforting a small child with colic, or creating beauty as a famous artist or lowly housewife.

So although one usually sees “martyrdom” as someone with a gun held to her head cries to God, and is threatened with death if she says yes, one has to remember that often the choice of being a witness is done humbly by those who risk their lives in the duty of their daily lives.

So the rescuers in the Twin Towers were martyrs, because they knew as they ascended the staircases that they might never make it out alive.

One also must count as martyrs those clergy who are killed because they oppose a corrupt government,  or because they oppose violent drug gangs, and in this list should be included journalists killed because they exposed the corruption of powerful politicians.

Physicians and nurses who died because they chose to work with infectious diseases, or risk their lives in war zones, they too are martyrs.

So I see Sister Rita and the other nurses, doctors,  and clergy who worked with me in Africa and died at their posts as martyrs, because they chose to stay in danger and serve “the least of my brethren”.

We also need to include those teachers who defy terrorists to give the gift of knowledge to children. These teachers are martyrs, whether they be Buddhist teachers in Thailand, Muslim teachers in Afghanistan, or Christian teachers in Mindanao.

The “decision” to risk their lives is often made earlier when the danger is less obvious, but the decision to remain in danger is made over and over again in the darkness of every night.

Their witness is not “religious” per se, but many chose the work because they see it as a way to serve God, and then they accepted the danger as part of their vocation.

Ah, vocation. It is a deeper word than “profession” because it implies a calling (i.e. someone who calls you to that work). I’m old enough to remember when physicians and nurses were vocations to help the sick, not “health care providers” who process illnesses to get a paycheck. There is a difference, you know.

Choosing to be faithful to one’s call in life, and the idea that every person has a vocation in the world changes the pictures of their deaths. Their deaths are not just senseless tragedies, their deaths are a witness to something larger than themselves.

As John Allen writes:

Fr. Andrea Santoro, a Roman priest killed in Turkey in 2005, wrote: “We witness spectacles of ferocious inhumanity. But the alternative to ferocity is charity.”

In such contexts, the practice of the faith and of charity is seen as an alternative…It makes us reflect on so many acts of barbarity, but also on so many women and men who are both strong and humble.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her blog is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes about religion and ethics at Boinkie’s Blog.

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