English Martyrs, 4th May 2022
We are not too sure these days what to make of this memorial to the English martyrs – not too sure what it is to be English any more – or to be a martyr. Surely we’ve moved away from such reflective and emotive terminology. But this is, perhaps, to make the same mistake as that which brought about the torture and deaths of these men and women in the first place: the failure to see them as unique instances of God’s love for us all; the failure to see them as human beings worthy of respect, just like you and me; the failure to realise our common humanity. This was prompted by a reading of a somewhat dated and difficult-to -love book by Jonathan Raban, Soft City: an examination of city life in the late sixties and early seventies of the 20th century, both here and abroad. It’s difficult to love because its characters are difficult to love. Seen through the lens of a man who perhaps felt unloved at that time; unloved and coloured by the prevailing instinct to see life in generalities; to see each of us as members of distinct and identifiable ghettos. So he seems to play into the very fear that causes just such
silo mentalities in a place such as Boston, where there is no real centre but a multiplicity of distinct neighbourhoods and, woe betide you, if you cross from one ghetto to another as, of course, he does. It’s a view which inevitably produces paranoia, as each district builds up a mythology about itself and its neighbours. All becomes grist to the mill of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Perhaps that is what our fear of identifying ‘English’ martyrs is partly about. We must keep everything fluid so that just such prejudicial boundaries are kept at bay. We must engage with the other if we are to avoid such categorisation and ultimately the desire to torture and kill. Yes, quite – but only if we also recover that original meaning of martyrdom which is to be a witness to God’s love: that is, to see and love our neighbours as they really are – not One in Christ as a generality but one by one as persons worthy of respect. The same still holds true in Russia, Syria, Palestine, Myanmar, China and elsewhere, where the dynamic of hate and categorisation prevails – but don’t be fooled: it’s a dynamic at work here as much as anywhere else.