Monday, July 20, 2009

"To No Good End": Requesting a Coherent Account of Christian Martyrdom

For some time I have had a nagging question at the back of my mind about the Christian just war tradition, and this week it was finally brought to the fore by David Bentley Hart in his essay, "Ecumenical War Councils: On Webster and Cole's The Virtue of War" (found in Hart's collection of essays, In the Aftermath). As Brian Hamilton noted a few months ago, Hart displays a "bizarre thoughtlessness regarding pacifism" that at times is profoundly bewildering. In "Ecumenical War Councils," for example, Hart refers offhand to "the pacifism of Yoder (with its myriad inconsistencies and incoherencies)" paired in tandem with the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr! And the overall tone of the essay is, like so much else by Hart, one of erudite, meticulously worded, hypercritical nostalgia for Christendom; and thus it is possible for Hart to discuss, explore, and even hail "justifiable violence as a work of charity" (p. 153 for both quotes).

Later Hart says, "It is one thing to turn the other cheek against insult and casual abuse, without seeking vengeance, or even to accept martyrdom, but another thing altogether to permit oneself simply to be murdered to no good end" (p. 154). And his prescriptive vision of Christians "go[ing] forth to fight for God's justice ... do[ing] so as citizens of a Kingdom not of this world, one that can make use of the post-Christian state, but that cannot share its purposes" (p. 155) is as close to a hellish blank check for religiously purposed violence as I have ever seen.

Regarding the prior quote, however, it reminded me of a friend from undergrad who was an avid proponent of the legitimacy of violence for Christian life. His main thesis was, in so many words, that martyrdom is fine if we're being persecuted for the faith; but if some random guy accosts me, or my house is invaded, or I'm fighting for a good cause, or some such situation, I'm grabbing the closest equivalent to Jesus' whip and beating the hell out of the attacker.

Here is my question, then, asked in all sincerity: Is it possible for Christian proponents of justifiable violence to give a coherent account of martyrdom?

I cannot answer in the affirmative. If discipleship's call to love and not to retaliate against my enemies is conditional upon their intentions (because I am a Christian, versus any other reason), or upon participation in the rule of rightly ordered justice (as Hart argues), or upon the harshness or extent of the intended violence or consequences (as is often implicitly felt), or upon the expectations or commands or authority given me by the state (as many Christians believe or argue in America), or even upon my individual preference or level of devotion (as is generally thought about "radicals" or "special" saints, who alone as a minority class may be expected to do what we cannot), there simply cannot be any coherent account of Christian martyrdom.

From these various positions, what is a Christian supposed to do when attacked? Ask politely if the violence is because he or she is a Christian, and if so, bless it, and if not, fight back? What of a Christian soldier? What if an enemy soldier or combatant were savagely attacking one's troops for the explicit reason of hatred for Christians? Or what of a Christian citizen who attempts to retaliate against sanctioned violence, doing his best to kill before being killed, but is captured and put to death? Is it only upon the formal removal of the power to self-defense that one may then submit to martyrdom?

Once again, we return to Hart's dismissal of "permit[ting] oneself simply to be murdered to no good end." This is genuinely perplexing. Was Christ murdered to a good end? Were his disciples? Are the martyrs? What is that good end, how does it differ between Master and follower, why, and what are its conditions? Is it possible for these conditions to be met, for a good end to result, when Christian violence is not only allowed but lauded as rightly ordered love of God in various open-ended situations?

It seems to me that martyrdom, as the obedient imitation of Jesus' suffering love on the part of his followers, must itself be understood first as "murder to no good end." It is precisely for that reason why the willing deaths of the early Christians were such a scandal, while simultaneously such an attraction, to the pagan Roman world. What could cause ordinary men and women of no meaningful standing or accord to allow themselves to be killed for no apparent good reason? Not only that, but how could they seem so joyful? Are they not afraid? Do they not value life? What of their children, their families, their future?

For, we must remember, Christians were not killed "for being Christians," that is, for being "wrongly religious" in our modern sense. Christians were killed for political, societal, economic reasons. Christians were those who began to claim allegiance to a Lord other than Caesar. Christians were those who bizarrely "ate the body" and "drank the blood." Christians were those who initiated one another into their own society distinct from Rome. Christians were those who refused to participate in the cultic and cultural practices that held Roman society together. Christians were those who served, welcomed, and elevated the poor and the marginalized, the sick and the outcast, women and slaves as equals into their new family. These were their blasphemies. These were their transgressions. These were the reasons for which they were ostracized, beaten, tortured, ridiculed, burned, stoned, and crucified.

And when they endured these seemingly meaningless sufferings and horrors and deaths, that is the exact place where they most witnessed (martyr meaning "witness" in Greek) to the saving love of God in Christ. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, these men and women revealed a love and a strength so powerful that it could endure death peacefully, joyfully, and without resort to retaliation against one's enemies. A love that did not take into account the reasons for which one was being persecuted. A love that did not take into account what might happen to one's own body, or plans, or future. A love that did not rationalize violence by office, justice, or nature.

A love that witnessed to another way, a future that had invaded the present. A love that could convert even one's enemies.

[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]


  1. I think you are right that Christian proponents of justifiable violence cannot give a coherent account of martyrdom. It's kind of like the story of Clarence Jordan's brother who admired Jesus and even worshiped him, but only followed him to a point. He would follow Jesus to the cross, but he wouldn't get on the cross with him. Similarly, propenents of justifiable violence frequently admire martyrs and believe the faithfulness of martyrs to be laudable, but they themselves would never submit to death without fighting back. I also find especially helpful your definition of martyrdom as murder to no good end.

  2. This is a great post -- and one of the best arguments for pacifism that I've seen (with the disclaimer that I haven't read Yoder).

  3. Garrett -- glad to know we are in agreement as usual. (Although I'm wondering how a serious, disciplined just warrior would respond.)

    Carolyn -- thank you! Glad to know you (and Matt?) are also in the big round world of blogging. Hope all is well with you two up north.

  4. Sorry so late to this post, but a thought that bothers me when I read Yoder or Camp's reiteration of Yoder: Neville Chamberlain's purchase of "Peace in our time" at the cost of tens of thousands of Czechoslovakian (at the time) Jews, gays, disabled persons lives seems so irresponsible and such a tragic price. We seem ot have no problem letting the blood of others be the price of our peace. It was clearly the move of a politician who was not a pacifist, but it troubles my soul to have the power to stop genocide, even if "peacekeeping" means standing with guns between people holding machetes. Too often Christians with power are content to let distant (whether behind the closed door in the next house or in a far nation) oppressors destroy the oppressed, particularly when involvement requires a personal cost. I am NOT a fan of violence, and I get frustrated because I get labeled a hawk simply because I hesitate to embrace pacifism without hesitation. I would love to hear more from Camp about his experiences in Rwanda when the violence broke out. His published comments beg more questions than they answer. It seems remarkably easy to be a Christian pacifist in the US at the moment, and remarkably easy to condemn Nigerian Christians for their religious/political quarrels with their fellow Muslim Nigerians or Irish Catholics and Protestants who maintain their centuries old quarrel. Again, I am not saying violence effectively answers violence--history shows how naive that position is. However, we enjoy a privileged pacifism. Perhaps because I work in the academy, but the current American brand I see most often is theosophical, unattached to the oppressed, condemning, and, bluntly, callous.

    As UN "Peacekeepers" find across the world, you can have the big guns, but when people with rocks and blades want to kill each other, someone dies, and often its you. Many of these peacekeepers legitimately have no desire or intent to use deadly force, and I envision these individuals as martyrs for a cause, though often the individuals are not Christian. It seems somewhat unkind to argue that a person like this could have no "intelligent" or "defensible" account for martyrdom. I do believe that pacifism in the face of Hitler would have ultimately left Europe free of Jews. Is that our aim? In the face of Nazism, Bonhoeffer was driven to conspire to murder, and I side with the scholars who label him anti-semitic. However, he recognized the humanity of the Jews, even as he held typical European prejudices, and he could not conceive of another way to stop the slaughter. Bonhoeffer may not be perfect, but I respect his understanding of the gospel, and I believe his case illustrates that pacifism is not as uncomplicated as American academics believe it to be.

    This in itself is more of a rant than a philosophical position. The context for it is broader than this post, and I hope my tone hasn't been offensive, because I enjoyed reading the thoughts here.

    Bill Carroll

    Sorry--for my google account isn't working, so I had to post anonymously.

  5. Of course it's possible to give a coherent account of martyrdom. I'm not even sure what you mean by the question.

    Consider the following moral rule (Call it "The Rule of Obedience Unto Death" or something): "Whenever the authority of the state demands you perform an intrinsically evil action, you must resist, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice your own life."

    Now here's the Just War Claim: "Violence is sometimes a necessary means to attaining a good end."

    There is no contradiction whatsoever between the two rule of obedience and the just war claim, not even an implicit one as far as I can see. For it is perfectly compatible with the rule of obedience to believe that the state has a legitimate interest in punishing evildoers and preventing the harm of its citizens with the use of force if necessary.

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