Martyrdom as more than a web pollRecent discussion regarding the death of Tom Fox has provided an interesting case study on the relationship between the Christian faith and politics. That there is such a relationship between faith and politics would be a given to anyone associated with Tom Fox or Christian peace keeping, as the motivation for such politically charged actions are based on the message and way of Jesus Christ. I want to propose a dual use of the term political, wherein the base meaning incorporates this sort of relationship (or the general sense of the term that includes doing anything basically) but another, perhaps more prevalent meaning, would refer to the politicaliztion of Tom Fox's death (and those like him) for causes other than the Gospel.
While Sojourners, amongst others, have avoided using the term 'martyr' in commentary on Tom Fox's death, other groups, specifically peace activist groups like Catholic Peace Fellowship, have used the term liberally. (Interestingly, CPT has avoided the term) Why would some groups choose to use the term while others avoid it?
First, let's look at a working definition of the term. After discussing the historical development of the term in relation to the earliest Christians, culminating in the death of Steven, The Catholic Encyclopedia defines martyrdom as:
"Thus, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the term martus came to be used in the sense of a witness who at any time might be called upon to deny what he testified to, under penalty of death. From this stage the transition was easy to the ordinary meaning of the term, as used ever since in Christian literature: a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who, though he has never seen nor heard the Divine Founder of the Church, is yet so firmly convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that he gladly suffers death rather than deny it." (emphasis added)
Here we see why martyrdom is political. Historically, the person is killed by a political body of power, usually a system appealing to justice, that condemns the person who is unwilling to publicly deny their faith. For a classic contemporary case of martyrdom, check out this story out of Afghanistan that was on the front page of the Tribune. Here, all the pieces are there, including the death via system of justice, option to spare life if he will deny his faith, etc. The Tribune, however, is apparently facing the same questions raised here, mainly, what to do about the concept of martyrdom today, as they changed the article title from "Afghan man faces death for being a Christian" to "Afghan man faces death for abandoning Islam." The article doesn't use the term martyr at all, however it does point out that under Islamic law someone can be put to death for converting (hence the more accurate revised title) however in this case the issue is clearly that Abdul Rahman insists that people know he is a Christian and refuses to repent.
In contemporary theology, discussions regarding the issue of martyrdom have taken a looser meaning of the term, ranging from meaning the death of anyone at the hands of oppression (Sobrino) to the death of anyone acting toward "the good." Two examples of this expanded meaning of the term will shed some light into this topic. Regarding the resignation of Harvard president Lawrence Summers, the AP refers to him as an "unlikely conservative martyr." Basically, Summers, a liberal in many ways, was run out of Harvard because he was not liberal enough. In a different example, less metaphorical than the previous one, JFK is considered by many to be a liberal martyr because he was killed for what he believed in (or by the government...)
In a certain sense, then, a colloquial meaning of the term "martyrdom" has developed that includes anyone dying for their beliefs or anyone who is treated badly for their beliefs. It is this colloquial meaning of the term that makes it difficult then to talk about the death of Tom Fox or Rachel Corrie or Abdul Rahman. Because of the religious background of the term media outlets are going to be less likely to call Tom Fox a martyr. The irony of it is that according to the colloquial definition that justifies the use of the term martyr for Lawrence Summers dismissal at Harvard more than applies to Tom Fox or Abdul Rhaman (should he be executed). In summary, it seems as though theological discussion regarding the topic of martyrdom in relation to Tom Fox is complicated by the colloquial use of the term and the apparent political implications, mainly that if Tom Fox is a martyr than what he believed was true about God. Likewise, non-religious media will not use the term in this instance would be too classical. Man dies for religious belief, although more like classical martyrdom, is less safe than say JFK or Lawrence Summers because of the possible political fallout.
Add into this mix the use of the term martyr by Islamic Suicide Bombers and everyone is really mixed up. This is exactly what Friends for a non-violent world have done, however, in their commentary on Tom Fox's death.
"Tom FoxÂs life and manner of death demonstrate a true martyrdom, absolutely unlike the so-called martyrdom of suicide bombers. A martyr is a ÂwitnessÂ to a truth unseen, a truth that God is and that God is good, powerful, loving and infinitely compassionate, even if life for us humans is full of violence and suffering. A martyr does not take the life of others, nor does a martyr take his or her own life. A martyr gives life for others to take, so that those who see this may gain a glimpse of who God is through that act of giving. This is utterly unlike the act of a person who kills him or herself, in order to have the greatest opportunity to kill others. This act of violence is not martyrdom; it is a mass murder-suicide, pure and simple. It shows nothing of God, except the degree to which human beings can brutally distort GodÂs image."
I think that this quote shows the importance for having nuanced meaning for the term. Here we have someone arguing that Tom Fox is a martyr and Islamic suicide bombers are not because the reality of God Tom Fox witnessed to is the true one. While I agree with this in principle, the term martyr and the death of Tom Fox can quickly become a tool of the other type of politics I mentioned above, wherein the other is demonized or Tom Fox's death is used simply as a statement against the government or war in general. Whether it is the Islam in this quote or the above mentioned conservative martyr, or even the peace activist death of Rachel Corrie, the one doing the killing is made out as obviously evil. But using these deaths or the term in this manner has shifted the focus from a witness to the resurrected Jesus and an unwillingness to deny this faith to another way to do violence to the other, something contrary to the Jesus witnessed to in the classical sense of martyr. I suppose what I am getting at is that the true power in the term martyr and the deaths of those who are martyrs is the critique of the systems that cause such possibilities (unjust politics, war, etc.) based on that which is witnessed to: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Simply using these deaths as a numerical support of the belief that war is violent or people are suffering or Islam is wrong is to limit the power of the term.
In conclusion, I point out the tensions that remain:
1. in a way, all martyrdom is a political statement. however, I am weary of instances where the death and witness are turned from the reality of Jesus Christ and instead focused on "political agendas," be they peace, coservativism, or liberal democracy. How can we preserve themeaning of the term, the consistency of non-violence with the Christian gospel, and avoid this sort of negative politicalization?
2. How can we distinguish between those killed fitting the classical definition of the term, (the potential execution of Abdul Rahman seems to fit this precisely) and those who have died because of what they believe in general? It seems that both are important issues to acknowledge. I do not want to discredit anyone for dying for what they believe in, however I want a positive way to speak of how Tom Fox, suicide bombers, and JFK fit the general meaning of the term, yet only someone dying for the sake of the way of Jesus Christ is a Christian martyr.
3. Is there any value in the term or has it lost potential meaning and strength because of the complexities included here? While some groups jumped to use the term in relation to Fox's death, some of which seem to do so for the sake of furthering their causes, others avoided it entirely. Why did Sojourners not call Fox a martyr? Are they sensing the difficulties I have written about here and opted to avoid the discussion?