The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom is the second book in Herald Press’s excellent new series, “Polyglossia: Radical Reformation Theologies.” Chris Huebner’s book, A Precarious Peace opened up the series with a book of supreme quality, erudition, and sophistication. Tripp York’s The Purple Crown proves to be a solid addition to the series and a helpful study on the nature of Christian martyrdom. He opens the book with a discussion of the early church’s experience and theology of martyrdom, especially emphasizing the connection between martyrdom and baptism, as well as the relationship between martyrdom and liturgy. For the early Christians, martyrdom was, in fact a public liturgy in which the powers of the kingdom of God entered into contest with the powers of Satan.
The second chapter puts forth a theology of the body in light of martyrdom. York argues that martyrdom is impossible unless the Christian body has been duly trained for it through the discipline of ecclesial-liturgical askesis. Christian liturgy is a form of bodily training for martyrdom; without such training the body will not be able to endure the heavenly contest between God and the Devil that takes place in the site of the martyr’s body. The material reality of the body is crucially important to York’s account here. Because the body is the mode through which humanity enters into communion with the divine (chiefly through the Eucharist), the body is of the utmost soteriological importance. The body is the site of salvation itself. This is why Christians cannot offer up their bodies (or the bodies of others) for anything other than God’s own kingdom. The body, being the site of salvation, cannot be given over to any ideology or community that is not salvific.
The third chapter is one of the most interesting ones in the book, as it deals with perhaps the most crucial question for a Christian theology of martyrdom, namely that of Christians who are named as martyrs who were killed by other Christians. Here the issue of the sixteenth-century conflict between Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists is particularly important. On both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide there was mutual killing which both sides narrated differently. Those of their own who were killed were holy martyrs, while those who they themselves killed were criminals being duly punished by law. The Anabaptists occupy a somewhat different place in this narrative as they alone were solely on the receiving end of violence in the sixteenth century. As such, they developed a very strong theology of martyrdom as delineated in the tome Martyr’s Mirror.
York explores these debacles and attempts to hold them open rather than find a way to neatly close them. The question of how to make sense of a Christianity that persecutes itself cannot be easily closed, especially in view of the fact that the self-descriptions of the bodies involved in this historical debacle all invariably identified those against them as the antichrist, rather than as fellow-Christians. In the end, York shows his preference for the Anabaptists, a point that clearly has a strong case to be made for it. However, he also notes that, in addition to embodying a witness of nonviolence in the face of extreme persecution, the Anabaptist tradition includes within it an impetus towards a hermeneutic of martyrdom that is capable of recognizing the martyrs outside of one’s own camp. This is seen in the fact that, within Martyr’s Mirror there are included many stories, including at least one of the martyrdom of a Lutheran pastor. In the end, York struggles to leave the whole question of how to interpret the sixteenth-century debacle open, but one wonders if, by leaving it endlessly open, he has not in fact found a way of taming the problem itself. Sometimes telling us to “live in the tension” is itself a way of dissolving the tension.
The fourth chapter of the book is a foray into the work of William Cavanaugh, John Howard Yoder, and Augustine on the issue of the relationship between the heavenly and the earthly city. Herein York give a cogent account of the sort of theopolitical vision that has become commonly identified with the work of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. The church is public and political by virtue of its own reality as a community constituted by baptism and the Eucharist. It is in the church’s worship, rather than its attempts to “get involved” in the world that the church embodies its particular politics.
The fifth chapter is something of a biographical summary of the life and martyrdom of Oscar Romero. The book closes with an epilogue on the non-sacrificial economy of gift that is embodied in the witness of the martyrs. Keying off the work of David Bentley Hart, York argues that the martyrs embody a different order of vision, a different optics in which the Eucharistic mystery is lived out in conflict with the powers, showing forth to the world the luminescence of the divine economy of grace.
On the whole, York’s book is a solid and helpful account of martyrdom. The book does not quite live up to Huebner’s book which preceded it, but it should not be slighted for that reason. If anything, what could have helped York’s book more would have been more attention to connection. One of his best chapters is the fourth one, in which he helpfully lays out an Augustinian-Yoderian mode of theopolitics. However, this whole chapter offers hardly any mention of martyrdom at all, or the connection between this theopolitical vision and a proper theology of martyrdom.
Another key point that should be considered is whether or not York makes too much of the connection between the Eucharist and martyrdom. He claims that “the importance of the Eucharist for a faithful account of martyrdom cannot be overstated” (p. 152). I think, however that indeed it can be overstated, and York has perhaps overstated the importance thereof. Surely the Eucharist is central in forming a martyrological imagination, but it does so as a part of the whole sacramental and communal universe of the journey of discipleship. Eucharist alone cannot make martyrdom possible; the amount of Eucharist that was happening in Nazi Germany belies such a simplistic answer to such questions. Certainly York does not intend any such simplistic answer, but it is important to be cautious against “Eucharist” simply becoming a cipher that answers every theological question, as it, and so many other concepts and practices are wont to do.
Ultimately, York’s book offers a helpful addition to the Polyglossia series, and is a very cogent articulation of the theopolitics of martyrdom. It is to be commended to anyone interested in martyrdom and its implications for discipleship and ecclesiology.