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Martyrdom without Fetishization

Daniel Izuzquiza’s Rooted in Jesus Christ is a very stirring addition to contemporary theology, and in particular is a helpful engagement with and extension of the project of liberation theology. The book focuses on four central features of liberation theology: method, God as liberator, the martyrs, and the poor. Some of his statements about martyrdom are particularly good:

If our discourse about martyrdom focuses on the violence, suffering, and death operating against the poor people—instead of highlighting their fortitude and endurance—the unwanted effect might be a victimization of the people themselves. In this scheme, the poor would be mere passive recipients of the violence exerted on them, while the real protagonists would be the executioners. The paradoxical outcome of such a theology of martyrdom would be a factual dis-empowerment of the victims, who are left with no other option than silent suffering of their unjust fate. Considered from another perspective, this approach seems to mimic the dominant discourse, with its emphasis on dramatic excesses, that may get attention from the mass media. In a sense, the recent film The Passion of the Christ might be an example of what a distorted theology of the cross and martyrdom may look like: a bloody and dreadful affair with little connection to human praxis in daily life. (p. 13)

In other words, if a theology of martyrdom is fixated on the violence suffered by the martyrs rather than on their courage and witness, we end up simply valorizing violence itself, making martyrdom something of a fetish.


  1. Wilson wrote:

    This seems a bit of a straw-man built on Mel Gibson. The violence of the act of witness is never the central aspect of martyr accounts, but it is a nearly necessary one. Without the violence, there is no martyrdom. This is not a claim in support of violence but a direct critique of violence on the part of the martyr (they did not raise the sword). The martyr accounts of the Fathers and later martyr accounts like the Martyr’s Mirror or Foxe’s Booke of Martyrs are nearly equally descriptive of the faith of and the violence to the martyr in question.

    Also, the praxis of daily life line seems a critique of martyrology in general similar to critiques of the exaltation of the passion narrative in Christian theology (even though the passion takes up a near majority in all of the gospels).

    It is the nuance of martyrdom that through violence the peace of God is shown. It can be shown in other ways, but few more definitive.

    Monday, September 21, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I agree that many, many accounts of martyrdom are told quite rightly Wilson, but I’ve seen some accounts that do indeed seem to revel in the amount of violence undergone by the martyrs. This is also seen in some of the over-eagerness of some members of the patristic churches to get themselves martyred. Often such attempts came very much at the expense of living out the gospel in the mundanity of everyday life.

    And while there is no martyrdom without violence, I think we must insist that in some sense the violence is incidental to, not constitutive of the martyrs’ witness. So in that sense I would disagree that the peace of God being shown in ways other than martyrdom is less definitive. The peace of God is simply the peace of God. Martyrdom is the event in which the powers of this world attempt, but fail to overturn that peace.

    Monday, September 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Matt wrote:

    Always seemed to me that Foxe’s Books of Martyrs (to take a historically significant example) is practically pornographic in its depictions of violence, so, yes, I think this is spot on.

    Monday, September 21, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  4. kim fabricius wrote:

    In addition, Matt, as the historian Diane Purkiss puts it in a review of Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (2009), “Foxe is as reliable as a history of the war in Afghanisan commissioned by the Taliban” (though the simile might equally conclude “commissioned by the Pentagon”). The point being that distortion in accounts of martyrdom hardly serves the martyrion to the kingdom of God. Lies themselves are a kind of violence.

    It is noteworthy how reserved are the NT accounts of the torture and execution of Jesus, even, indeed especially, in Luke, whose staurology is considered the most martyrological of the evangelists.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 12:37 am | Permalink
  5. Marvin wrote:

    I just read “The Martyrs of Lyons” in a directed study on the Patristic Church. What the Christians suffered was truly grim, but the narrator tells the story in such a way as to not invite a “Saw”-like fascination with violence, or even an adulation of the martyr as cartoon superhero, but rather to invite contempt on so-called Roman Civilization, in which ordinary folks got their jollies from watching human beings roasted and torn apart by wild animals. If a martyrology does this, uses their suffering to make a public example of the ones who inflict the suffering in the name of all that is “true and just” (Colossians 2:15), then it stays safely away from the torture porn genre that both Saw and The Passion of the Christ seem to fall into.

    Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 7:10 am | Permalink

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