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Demetrios Constantelos

Altruistic Suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom?
Christian Greek orthodox Neomartyrs: A Case Study

[From Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, No 1, 2004].

Altruistic Martyrdom or Altruistic Suicide

Some students of psychohistory have tried to explain religious martyrdom in terms of compulsive suicidal desires: For example, it has been stated "suicide thinly disguised as martyrdom was the rock on which the Church had first been founded."(7) The life and martyrdom of the Greek Orthodox neo-martyrs reveal that there were several dynamics at work, and as the appendices indicate martyrdom cannot be explained in personality structures and psychological terms.

Undoubtedly former apostates from Christianity possessed the desire to atone under "the weight of excessive guilt,"(8) but the majority of neo-martyrs followed neither a uniform ritualistic behaviour nor an identical pattern. There is no evidence, not even indications, that they were compulsive neurotics who sought martyrdom in order to escape from fear and anxiety, or to achieve notoriety and fame for posterity.

The Orthodox Church under Ottoman rule lived under perpetual insecurity and the faithful were actually trained for adverse circumstances and even for defence of their faith with martyrdom. Life after death, reward for virtue and steadfast faith, and a faith in a kingdom of heaven -these were realities for the Orthodox faithful. As we have seen, only a handful sought martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom or in imitation of early Christian martyrs. Most of the neo-martyrs were simple and unpretentious folk people and their martyrdom reveals that it was not "suicide thinly disguised" but the result of lofty ideals and a powerful commitment to the moral and eschatological teachings of Christianity.

As in early Christianity, likewise during the Ottoman period, motives for martyrdom derived from various teachings of Christ as well as from the experience of the primitive church.(9) Perhaps imitation of Christ's example was one of the prominent motives. Martyrdom was identical to confession of faith before infidels or enemies of Christianity. Christ was the first and foremost of all martyrs, who offered himself in self-sacrifice. And it was He who said: "Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will confess before my Father who is in Heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men; him will Ι deny before my Father, who is in Heaven" (Mt. 10:32-33).

Furthermore for people who believed that they were sojourners on earth whose Lord was "at hand" (Mt. 4:17, Lk. 12:36) and who believed in the coming of the final era, martyrdom was the climax of devotion to their God. The desire for atonement of former apostates who suffered from a guilty conscience was ever present. Undoubtedly some sought martyrdom because of the Church's teaching that martyrdom was a second baptism, which meant a catharsis from all sins.

However, like the lapsed Christians of the Roman persecutions, who were chided for their failure to witness and even die for their faith,(10) the lapsed Christians under the Turks were often rebuked by saintly monks and devout clergymen. Not a few received the blessings and the encouragement of their "spiritual fathers" before they made their witness before their judge and executioners (Perantones, 1972, 3:370, 387, 434-35). The example and the deeds of the early Christians not only sustained but also inspired many Christians under the Turks. The simplicity, the directness, even the naiveté of the accounts, as well as the horror associated with the tortures of the neo-martyrs are reminiscent of martyrdom in the early church.(11)


7. - This statement is attributed to A. Alvarez. See Seymour Byman (1978).

8. - Ibid, p. 626. Byman cites Erik Erikson whose work has given much ground for psychohistory.

9. - See W.H. C. Frend (1967), Ι4-14, 150-52, 260-64, 265, 270, 473.

10. - See Cyprian, Treatise 3: On the lapsed, and Treatise 11: Exhortation to martyrdom. Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5 (Grand Rapids, 1957), 437-47, 496-97.

11. - Eusebios, Ecclesiastical History, 5, 1-2 .

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