Today, while we are celebrating Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, many will be thinking of Emily Davison, the suffragist, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in the hope of advancing the cause of votes for women. Justin was beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which neatly solved the problems some had found with his theology. Martyrdom, like love, covers not only a multitude of sins but also acts as the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy. The ‘secular martyrdom’ of Emily Davison is more problematic. There are grounds for thinking that her death was an unintended consequence of her action rather than planned from the beginning, and in the short term it achieved very little other than opprobrium for herself. The First World War did more to achieve votes for women, although it is undeniable that Emily Davison’s death drew attention and made some, at least, think about the injustice of refusing the franchise to women. It seems to me, however, that, brave as she was, to talk of her as a martyr is to misunderstand the nature of martyrdom.
A martyr bears witness through his or her death to the truth of the Church’s faith in Christ. Death is not sought; it is accepted as the necessary consequence of belief, and it is important to note that it is the Church’s belief, rather than the individual’s, which is affirmed through the sacrifice of life. That is why so many graces flow from martyrdom. The Church has her martyrs in every age, but those we remember from the first centuries often have a peculiar sweetness and charm frequently at odds with the horrific tortures to which they were subjected. Justin himself is an attractive figure. A chance conversation with an old man transformed him from a Stoic into a Christian philosopher: ‘A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.’
Truth, joy, sacrifice: they are surely a form of witness we can all strive to emulate.