December 2019 / January 2020 - Vol.107

The Witness of Martyrdom and Persecution Today
.martyr cross illustration
Ecumenism of Blood

by Dan Keating

How can the ‘ecumenism of blood’ lead to a deeper ecumenism of heart and mind?

You might not be familiar with the phrase, ‘ecumenism of blood’. It is an idea that has gained momentum among Christians especially in the past 5-10 years.

The sense of an ‘ecumenism of martyrs’ was widely publicized by Pope John Paul II twenty years ago around the time of the millennium. What is the vision behind this? If Christians – of whatever background and conviction – die for their faith in Christ, then they demonstrate the ultimate act of ‘witness’ to him. Martyrs in the modern world in fact come from all the different churches. And all of them give their ‘all’ to Christ in a definitive way.

The idea is that if martyrs from various churches can be joined in this common act of complete witness to Christ, then this shows a unity achieved beyond what we have been able to attain in the normal life of Christians. The martyrs, then, by their act of this complete gift of their lives, show that unity is possible and already being reached.

As we gaze on our common martyrs, we are then strengthened to pursue unity here and now
to serve together, witness together, and suffer together.

The ‘ecumenism of blood’ has become Pope Francis’ favorite way of speaking about how Christians are called to witness together today. Here is an excerpt from his address to an ecumenical gathering of Christians in Phoenix, AZ (USA) in 2015. (In case you don’t spot it, he is talking about the ‘devil’ in the opening sentences.)
“There is someone who ‘knows’ that, despite our differences, we are one. It is he who is persecuting us. It is he who is persecuting Christians today, he who is anointing us with (the blood of) martyrdom. He knows that Christians are disciples of Christ: that they are one, that they are brothers! He doesn’t care if they are Evangelicals, or Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics or Apostolic … he doesn’t care! They are Christians. And that blood (of martyrdom) unites. Today, dear brothers and sisters, we are living an ‘ecumenism of blood’. This must encourage us to do what we are doing today: to pray, to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood.”
A striking example of this ‘ecumenism of blood’ occurred in North Africa in 2015. A video was released showing the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians along the Libyan coast. Why were they killed? Simply because they were Christians and confessed to being so. Fellow Christians across the world joined in mourning their deaths but also rejoiced in the power of their witness. For these twenty-one Coptic men, ‘the adventure of discipleship’ ended suddenly and with great cost. It was probably not what any of them had planned. But to them was granted the great privilege to die for Christ – and so to prove themselves Christ’s friends.

As we witness fellow Christians giving their lives (their blood) for Christ, we can take heart that they are forging a unity in Christ deeper than anything that divides us. May we be strengthened by their example, to live and to die for the Lord.

Perhaps there is another mystery at work when martyrdom and persecution go together, as so many Christians in the world are experiencing today: they lead to deeper unity among those who suffer. Our differences, though important, now seem petty as we come to fight together for a cause that is far more important than our differences – the salvation of the whole world – a cause for which our Lord himself suffered both persecution and martyrdom.

> This article features in the Sword of the Spirit Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, 2020

Dr. Daniel A. Keating (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford) is associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA and an elder of The Servants of the Word, a lay missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.  
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