Tuesday, March 13, 2007

To die for? Martyrdom and the Christian life

This is a guest post by Michael Jensen. It originally appeared here. Michael, an Australian, is currently working on a D Phil in Oxford on Martyrdom and its meaning for the Self. See his Blogging in the name of the Lord interview here. It strikes me that the development of a theology of martyrdom is an urgent task for the Church in the West.
1. Martyrdom is the external representation of the inner reality of the Christian life. Every Christian is always already a martyr, because every Christian has already died. The life of the follower of Jesus is thus always already a life lived in preparation of the possibility of such a trial. The hatred of the world for Jesus is shared by his followers. They already lay down their lives, and take up their crosses and follow him. They die to the world... Baptism is a symbol of this offering of the old self over to death which is what every Christian does as a testimony to the truth of Jesus Christ. Every Christian, we might say, is already a martyr. That there are some who suffer to the point of pain and death is a glorious sign for us of the reality of this. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)
2. To be a martyr is to be a witness. Martyrdom can be a powerful form of truth-disclosing action. Christian martyrs bear witness to the love of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Those who stake theological truth claims, then, should not oppress but rather suffer oppression. The witness to the truth is one whose life displays the rightness of the believing, and thus the rightness of the belief. The Christian martyr not only declares but displays what it means to say “Jesus is Lord” or “God is Love”. Indeed, one might go further and say that without martyrs we simply would no longer have the meaning of these propositions.
3. Martyrdom is an imitation of Jesus in his passion and death. The Christian martyr 'performs' Christ's death, as an echo of it. Martyrdom does not of course repeat his work of dying for the world: it takes the form of it so as to point to it. So, the martyr must suffer innocently and willingly.
4. Martyrdom is not a cult of death, for the Christian martyr loves life. The death of the martyr is not a resignation to fate, but truly has a tragic, mournful aspect: for it points to the value of life. You cannot consider laying down one’s life for your friends a sacrifice of any significance if you hold life cheap. There is a “powerful sense of loss” at the heart of Christian martyrdom, because life is hallowed by it in its fullness. Jesus came to give abundant life (John 10:10), after all – an intensification of life. This is important – the structure of resurrection belief is an affirmation of the goodness of the created order, pointing not to its eradication by the coming new order but its transformation.
5. Martyrdom affirms life by renouncing it. The disciple gives up her life and her pleasures and her security to let God do with them what he may... because she sees these things as they truly are...'giving up' something, even your own life, means renouncing your claim to be a master over it.
6. Martyrdom is a sign for us of the ongoing power and effectiveness of the gospel of Jesus in the world. For Luther it is a sign of the presence of the true church! That people are willing to die shows that the gospel really does work to change the lives of people.
7. As Augustine says: 'it is the not the punishment but the cause that makes a martyr'. Dying for a heresy is not martyrdom: it is just stupid. And also, the call of a Christian is not to seek bloody martyrdom, but to witness to Christ whatever the risk. The rest is in God's hands...And so:
8. Martyrdom is an act of God, not of human beings. You can't self-designate as a martyr, or pursue martyrdom for its own sake. No persecution complexes please!
9. Martyrdom is a sign of the distinctively Christian way in which we (ought to) speak. Christians must offer a suffering witness, not a speech of power. We do not pursue a discourse of rights, unless it is on behalf of others.
10. Martyrdom is a sign of the impermanence of earthly power: and it WORKS!It is loyally resistant... because it says 'Nebuchadnezzar, you are validly at rule, but not permanently, and only because you have been established by a higher ruler.' It exposes the folly of human imperialism. It is a great comfort to the oppressed!
11. Martyrdom is not merely a stand of eternal dissidence; it is a witness to the rule of God in Christ. So, it CAN accept peace terms when they come. We don't need to return to the catacombs to be truly Christian, but we must always be at the ready for the time when the tide turns and martyrdom becomes a possibility again. A careful collaboration with the power of the state is possible, but the church must always remember what its particular task is and not betray its nature by getting involved in the business of government.
12. Martyrdom is a sign that the Christian way of being a self is completely at odds with secular way of being a self. Life for the Christian is not about pleasure and security. We renounce both - by which I mean we hand them over to God. We order them according to his designations.


michael jensen said...

oh yes, point 3:

The martyr is a Christian martyr in that he 'performs' christ's death, as an echo of it. It does not of course repeat his work of dying for the world: it takes the form of it so as to point to it. So, the martyr must suffer innocently and willingly.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks, MJ. I've added these comments to point 3 of the post.

michael jensen said...