It is becoming apparent that the massacre of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC during their Bible study was a hate crime. The disturbed (at best), evil (at worst) murderer explicitly intended to ignite a race war that he was convinced blacks would lose, resulting in apartheid or (one must suppose) their extermination from American soil.
Reports indicate that the gunman, Dylann Roof, shot up the members of the Bible study because they were black. No evidence has been publicized that he killed them because they were Christians.
Nevertheless, their fellow Christians of all colors and ethnicities have good reason for viewing the fallen as martyrs for Jesus Christ.
The word martyr comes from the Greek word for "witness." It acquired a technical meaning in the ancient church for those who died for their faith, because when threatened with death they publicly bore witness that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was a Lord superior to Caesar. They chose their confession over their lives.
The existence and history of the Black Church in America is suffused with believers great and small who followed Jesus Christ at great personal risk.
Some slave preachers learned to read so they could learn and preach the Bible even when it was illegal and would have resulted in horrific punishment.
Slaves and freedpeople formed their own churches outside of white control (like Emanuel) so they could be free to worship God with abandon and proclaim the whole message of the Bible—including parts that their masters wanted them to avoid, like the exodus of Israel from slavery.
During Reconstruction, churches formed the social engine of black uplift and the institutional home of former slaves who demanded equality with whites. A century before the Civil Rights Movement, churches successfully taught their members to combine faith in their dignity as God's image-bearers with peaceableness. Black Christians extended astounding forgiveness toward the whites who oppressed them as slaves and continued (often viciously) to resist their claim to full humanity with its civil and social implications.
The core of the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century consisted of black Christians who concluded that to approve of white supremacy tacitly by accommodating it was to bow the knee to a racist idol. They peacefully chose to stop cooperating with that demonic system in order to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
The members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church were slain while reading God's word. Whether the murder thought about it or not, there was a certain odd fitness to his act. Satan hates justice and the equality of the human family and true freedom, and all of those principles are contained in the word of God and arise from the word of God.
Even the large number of religiously apathetic people today who support such principles are the unwitting heirs of a centuries-long liberal heritage with roots in Christianity. Much of that heritage and many of its adherents have rejected Christianity, but not the members of Emanuel.
They know that justice, equality, and freedom belong to the kingdom of God and are found in Christ. They know that the Bible is more subversive of oppression and more supportive of justice than any other literature. They know that Christ is King and that their voices will never be silenced.
Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been [Rev. 6:9–11].
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,
“The salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come,
because the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
the one who accuses them day and night before our God,
has been thrown down.
But they overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
and they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die” [Rev. 12:10–11].