A martyr is someone who is willing to face death rather than renounce religious or personal beliefs. Many religions include a tradition of martyrdom, and martyrs are often held in high esteem since they represent the pinnacle of faithfulness to some people. The term is also used to describe people who die in political struggles, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, who was assassinated during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
The term comes from the Greek martus, meaning “witness.” “Witness” is often used in a religious context to describe someone who testifies on behalf of his or her religion, in the hopes of converting or educating people about it. As one might imagine, in periods of religious suppression, witnessing would have been extremely dangerous, and as a result someone might be martyred because he or she refused to renounce an undesirable religious faith.
In Judaism, martyrdom is a very important concept, perhaps because the Jewish people have historically been subject to persecution by many cultures. To become a martyr is to personally affirm the Jewish faith and people; many martyrs also hope that their deaths serve a greater cause, perhaps paving the way to a wider acceptance of their religion. Martyrs are also important in Christian faith; many have been canonized as saints in recognition of their contribution to the body of Christian faith.
It is also possible to find martyrs in Islam and Buddhism, along with other religions. In religions which believe in reincarnation, some people use the term “martyr” to describe someone who willingly puts off higher incarnations because he or she wants to serve mankind. In all religions, martyrdom is closely tied with the concept of personal sacrifice for a greater good. This sense of personal sacrifice is also implied in discussions of non-religious martyrs like people who advocate for political and social change.
Some people also use the term “martyr” disparagingly, to describe someone who complains about his or her suffering at every opportunity. The term is also used to discuss people who complain about being in bad situations without doing anything about it. For example, someone who complains constantly to coworkers about dental pain may be called a martyr behind his or her back, with the implication that he or she should just go to the dentist and get the situation dealt with.