John Ogilvie was martyred at a time when kings were demanding control of spiritual as well as temporal power, when Catholicism had been outlawed, when reformers were imposing their beliefs and worship on society, when people were ready to kill those who did not conform, when only one truth was seen to be acceptable. So what has changed you may ask? This hatred and lack of intolerance has spread to the Middle East and is a constant item on our news bulletins. Now we have our modern martyrs like the Egyptians recently killed in a barbaric murder in Libya with a prayer upon their lips and now officially declared marytrs in the Orthodox Coptic Church. They were killed for being Christians and many others have been persecuted and killed for simply being themselves. History is littered with such killings. Religious wars, ideological positions, fear of wise women who were different, the exclusion of people because of their sexuality have all led to death and persecution. Are they all martyrs? Well in some ways they are.
The word martyr means witness and in religious terms is applied to those willing to stand up for their ideals to the point of being willing to die for them. But are all ideals worth dying for? Presumably soldiers engaged in war believe in the success of their cause, kamikaze pilots believed that duty to their country was worth the sacrifice and those willing to fight for the Islamic State seem to think that the rewards of martyrdom in the next life are worth sacrificing their lives in this one. And religion encourages this attitude. The Qur'an does tell them that they will be rewarded in Paradise.
Martyrs have been revered in religion especially Christianity and Islam. For Christians a martyr has been one who has remained true and steadfast to his or her faith in the face of physical punishment or death. It is to refuse to compromise on faith, which would also be true of religions such as the Baha'i faith or Judaism. While this is also the case for Islam a person can be called a martyr who has died in battle defending his faith which can include suicide bombing. I've heard this called active martyrdom while the other is called passive martyrdom. Passive martyrdom is to refuse to resort to compromise, violence or physical retaliation, it's to be done unto while active martyrdom can involve infliciting violence on another because it takes place in the context of war so it's to do unto. These are two quite different views but perhaps a notion that unites them is the idea of persecution. Passive martyrdom is to accept persecution and active martyrdom is to fight against a real or imagined persecution for the truth of one's position.
But there's a way in which martyrdom in Christianity can also be active. Here I'm thinking of people like Dorothy Stang and Oscar Romero who were active in standing up for the poor and oppressed even though they knew they were likely to be killed. For many years the Vatican refused to call Oscar Romero a martyr because they said his cause was political but Pope Francis has settled that argument and he is now to be canonised in the next few months. For Archbishop Romero, as for Sister Dorothy, being active in opposing injustice and speaking out for the rights of others ( in a non-violent way) was a religious act and a faithful response to the Gospel message. Their position had political repercussions but their deaths were indeed a religious act and their courage and self- sacrifice truly merits them being called martyrs.