Monday, August 17, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part V: The Question of Martyrdom Revisited

This series began with a post entitled, "'To No Good End': Requesting a Coherent Account of Christian Martyrdom," in which I argued that it seemed to me any Christian justification of violence precludes the possibility for a coherent account of martyrdom. That post, in turn, prompted a healthy and immensely helpful dialogue with Bill Carroll, whose comment to my original piece I posted in full. And just a few days ago, Shane posted this comment:
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.
I am fascinated by this response, partly because I don't seem to engage the Just War tradition at all in my post (I reference it once in my opening paragraph), but primarily because it seems to presume from the outset that the argument is about the state's use of violence, when what I am after is justified Christian participation in that and other forms of violence, and the ensuing incoherence that justified participation implies for the content of Christian martyrdom.

Perhaps a comparison might be helpful. I am little educated concerning Muslim martyrdom proper, but the distorted popular form of it embodied in the practice of fanatical violence toward others, whether intentionally suicidal like blowing oneself up or potentially so through disregard for one's own life in the pursuit of killing the infidel, offers a perfect counterpoint to Christian martyrdom. For the Christian martyr by definition not only refuses self-defense and self-preservation, but (1) denies all legitimate resort to violence in the sure confidence that God will vindicate him or her (2) through God's own patient justice and (3) through the resurrection of the body in the coming age, specifically as (4) participation with Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in (5) his nonretaliatory suffering on the cross, (6) his clash with the rebellious principalities and powers of the old age, and (7) his love for enemies as fallen but beloved creatures of God. Thus, subversively appropriating David Bentley Hart's pejorative phrase, I defined Christian martyrdom as "murder to no good end": from the perspective of the world, not only were the early Christians not dying for "religious reasons," there was nothing apparent "for" which they were being killed. Only the sight faith provided could see that there was both hope and meaning in the seemingly meaningless deaths of the martyrs.

Thus martyrdom cannot be merely dying "for a good cause" or "in the midst of the good fight," nor even "whenever the authority of the state demands you perform an intrinsically evil action," because part and parcel of the martyr's witness is the refusal both of violence and of the necessity for obvious, externalized, uninterpreted meaningfulness. (A martyr's death may have nothing to do with refusal to perform evil and everything to do with the faithfulness of a life or a community that witnesses against the insanity, violence, or oppression of a ruling power, as we will see below.) To argue that vocations or offices exist in which the agency of authorized violence may be performed justly by a Christian seems intrinsically to exclude, for that Christian, the possibility of martyrdom. If so, we must ask: Is there such thing as a Christian excluded from the call, if the situation arose, to be a martyr, to be a peaceable witness to the love of Christ? I see no reason to answer in the affirmative.

I return again to the example of a Christian soldier on the battlefield. What if the enemy group/nation were to proclaim clearly and straightforwardly that they wanted to kill the soldiers who were Christian precisely out of hatred for Christ? What if the violence were intrinsically religious violence? Would the Christian soldier's allegiance to Jesus as a disciple or responsibility to the military as a soldier obtain priority? How would such a decision be made systematically and not arbitrarily (i.e., whatever each individual thinks is best)?

I realize I am stacking the deck with my presumption against all organized participation in violence on the part of Christians, but I am sincere when I say that, in the acknowledgment that there is sincere disagreement within the body of Christ on this issue, I would deeply appreciate and give serious credence to a coherent account of martyrdom that somehow accords with justifiable violence. However, I see the situation much more in line with the description William Cavanaugh offers in Torture and Eucharist (Malden: Blackwell, 1998):
In modernity, we have been scripted into a drama in which state coercion is seen as necessary to subdue a prior violence already inherent internally in civil society and externally in the form of other nation-states. Given that the state arises in conjunction with the atomization of civil society and the creation of national borders, however, it can be said that the state defends us from threats which it itself creates. The church buys into this performance by acknowledging the state's monopoly on coercion, handing over the bodies of Christians to the armed forces, and agreeing to stay out of the fabricated realm of the "political." Acquiescence to this drama saps the church's ability to resist where and when states become violent. (p. 9)
Cavanaugh goes on to narrate the story of the Catholic church in Chile and its attempts to resist the oppressive rule of Pinochet, and in a conversation with Bishop Alejandro Jiménez discovers that, in a very real sense, the church abdicated the allegiance and discipline of its members to the state. In Jiménez's own words:
The problem is that it is not only a matter of personal relationships, because the soldier above all forms part of an institution and has to obey absolutely his institution. ... [Private conversations] are valuable insofar as the soldiers have a bit of influence to change some things, but they are insufficient because [soldiers] form part of a body in which not they but their superiors have the final word. (p. 95-96)
Cavanaugh responds, "But if the person is a Catholic, aren't you his superior as bishop and he therefore has to obey you?" Jiménez's reply is crucial, and devastating in what it reveals; he says that "you can't demand St Thomas' attitude of [the soldier]" that the authority of God or the church trumps that of the state,
Because it depends definitely on his conscience, what he wants to do and how he wants to react. The authority of a bishop is a very strong authority, the most powerful of all because it goes directly to the conscience. But it is the most fragile of all authorities, because for the conscience to accept it or not to accept it depends, in the end, on the person. (p. 96)
Cavanaugh goes on to articulate what has happened:
The soldier is expected to comply with an order without delay because, as Jiménez says, he is a member of a "body," the Chilean army, an organization of people bound by a common mission and a common discipline. What that common discipline indicates here is control over the soldier's body. When an order comes from a military superior it matters little if the soldier of lower ran agrees in conscience or not; the order must and will be obeyed. As a Catholic, however, the soldier belongs simultaneously to the church, which in this view is not a body in the same sense. The church is not bound by the same sort of discipline, but can only speak to the interior consciences of its members, and hope that those members might freely accept the church's word. When it is considered a body at all, the church is only a "mystical body," uniting all Catholics, torturers and tortured alike, in spiritual, not bodily, union. (p. 96)
A merely spiritual union of "torturers and tortured alike" is exactly the sort of incoherence that results when the body of Christ forsakes its primacy and hands over its members' bodies to a rival social body, believing either that it continues to reign "spiritually" in the "souls" of its members or that the church is indeed only a collection of individuals whose respective consciences must each make up their own minds as to what is right. On the contrary -- and here we conclude -- as the imitation of Christ, martyrdom
is rather a highly skilled performance learned in a disciplined community of virtue by careful attention to the concrete contours of the Christian life and death as borne out by Jesus and the saints. ...

As such, martyrdom recalls into being a people, the people of God, and makes their life visible to themselves and to the world. They remember Christ and become Christ's members in the Eucharist, reenacting the body of Christ, its passion and its conflict with the forces of (dis)order. The martyrs and all the faithful followers of Christ make up in their own bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of his body, the church (Col. 1:24). (p. 62, 64)

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