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Martyrdom and Narrative Closure

A further thought on the nature of martyrdom: It seems that what makes martyrdom what it is is determined by the community of memory to which the martyr belongs and who narrate that memory. That a person’s death is a martyrdom is a hermeneutic statement about the whole shape of that person’s life and death. It is to say that, given that this person has died, that their life has been terminated and is now a completed whole, this life says this. For someone’s life to be martyrological that life must be a finished life, a completed story. As long as I am alive, the story of myself is open to revision. Only with my death will the who of who I am be permanently settled and open for final evaluation. To call someone a martyr is to claim that their life, now being closed, completed, finalized makes this statement, bears this witness, proclaims this reality.

Thus, it seems that martyrdom should be understood as a possibility, and indeed an imperative for all Christians. Of course, at this point we have extrapolated the meaning of martyrdom out to its furthest possible point. And at this point it raises the question, if this sort of notion of martyrdom is correct, does one necessarily have to be violently killed to be rightly accounted as a martyr?

4 Comments

  1. Hill wrote:

    I think we have to keep in mind that, beyond (or perhaps before) a theology of martyrdom, there were those who bore witness to the truth of the Christian faith by submitting themselves in a Christ-like manner to ignominious suffering and death. A specific use of the word martyr emerged out of that context to denote those who had suffered death for the sake of witnessing to the truth, and it’s important to respect the function and special meaning of that sense of the word. I think it is a bit too comfortable to suggest that death is merely on a continuum of the sorts of hardships one might experience in witnessing to the truth. That being said, some are called to unite themselves to the suffering of Christ in a different manner and may be considered martyrs in the more general sense of witness as well, but there is nonetheless a useful distinction to be made. I basically agree with you though, martyrdom, even a kind of martyrdom in prolepsis, is a mode of life towards which all Christians are called. Maybe it is better to say that the Christian life is open to the fullness of martyrdom, but, properly understood, that constitutes more than simply being killed because one is Christian.

    “What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  2. reibwo wrote:

    i agree with the previous commenter. Death is a necessary condition for martyrdom, but not a sufficient one.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  3. Indiefaith wrote:

    “Only with my death will the who of who I am be permanently settled and open for final evaluation. To call someone a martyr is to claim that their life, now being closed, completed, finalized makes this statement, bears this witness, proclaims this reality.”

    Is it not in death that the real open and lived debate of the “who” of life really begins? The narration of the community is not a given at death. There have been some necessary revisions over time of lives past.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I agree with you very much. That is what I was wanting to add in above. I think we need to preserve some sort of way of preserving the singular reference of martyrdom as it emerged historically, while at the same time looking at how the sort of radical Christic singularity that is martyrdom is in some sense the apex toward which we are all called. In some ways it seem to me to be analogous to monasticism (which was always understood as a sort of “mode” of martyrdom throughout Christendom when actual martyrdom more or less ceased). It is, on the one hand, something which few attain and as such are described uniquely and yet it is also something to which we are all called, and in some sense, is a possibility for all of us, even though our participation in the actuality of that end will often be diverse.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

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