There has been a significant shift in the pattern of Christian martyrdom in recent years that highlights the motivations of the killed rather than the killers and the inclusion of Christians who have died as a result of mass killings and genocides, writes Todd M. Johnson and Gina Zurlo in the social science journal Society (51).
Johnson and Zurlo have faced some recent criticism for their claim that there are 100,000 martyrs each year, but they maintain that the criteria and definitions of martyrdom have changed, resulting in higher numbers. By taking into account the motives of those killed rather than the killers, Johnson and Zurlo include those who were killed for reasons other than because they were Christians, thus including such well-known figures as Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who were killed more for political reasons even if they were religiously motivated.
Thus, such “martyrs” die in circumstances related to their Christian faith. Johnson and Zurlo use the more controversial criteria of mass killings and genocide because of the “interwoven nature of religion and ethnicity, and the mixed motivations of persecutors.”
They cite research suggesting that persecutors can use ethnic or racial identity as markers for religion or it can be vice versa. Much of the authors’ recent data comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which they consider the “largest martyrdom situation today.” They estimate that there have been 800,000 Christian martyrs among the millions who have been killed from 2000-2010. The various rebel groups kill without much religious motive but many of those Christians killed have been in “situations of witness” for their faith, such as attending church. Johnson and Zurlo find an additional 200,000 Christians killed in the first decade of the 21st century in situations of witness in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Iraq, Mexico, Nigeria, China and other countries.
For the future they forecast that martyrdom will likely change from Orthodox and Catholic believers to those in Pentecostal and independent churches as well as from state-based to society-based persecution, with perpetrators representing a “wide variety of perspectives, such as communism, religious nationalism, and various cultural and social traditions.”