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This review of Witnesses to Faith? Martyrdom in Christianity and Islam (published for CCADD in April 2006) was published in The Tablet on 21st October 2006.  



Beyond language

Witnesses to Faith? Martyrdom in Christianity and Islam

ed. Brian Wicker


Tablet bookshop price 36 Tel 01420 592974

It is not difficult to guess why this book has been published. It asks: were the atrocities of 11 September 2001 in New York, 11 March 2004 in Madrid and 7 July 2005 in London the work of suicide bombers or men committed to the perpetration of self-styled "martyrdom operations"? What should a proper definition of that venerable word martyrdom actually be? Indeed, in light of the claims of the terrorists, has the whole concept of martyrdom validity any longer?

The book's editor, chairman of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament, asks how we can tell the genuine martyr from the fake. An attempt to identify the true meaning of a word by isolating it in particular, defining contexts and usages is, of course, a well-worn method. And Christianity and Islam demand such an exegetical approach of us; as Brian Wicker remarks, both are religions of "the book" and both "begin ... from the concept of a martyr as a 'witness' within an ancient legal framework". So perhaps we can hope to uncover a solid foundation.

  Yet trouble breaks out almost at once. The study of early sources presents no firm line between an era of origination and a new one of interpretation, and if Christians often show a fondness for getting back to the root meaning, Muslims might claim that what comes later supersedes.

Of course, there is a great deal more than this at stake today. The more intricate our exegesis, the more remote it must be from a world in which religious understandings are frequently converted into the vivid justifications of ideology, violence and fanaticism. We might have acquired a superior world of meaning but we have lost sight of another. Terrorists know how to fashion particular understandings for their own campaigns; they know how to persuade and win adherents - men and women whose humanity they will exploit far more brutally than their religious language. And that, of course, is what matters to them. In short, debates about language cannot be enough. We need to confront the realities of power.

This book presents a vast, and sometimes surprising, congregation of authorities. Aquinas is a ubiquitous presence; Shakespeare pops up here and there. There are thoughtful encounters with T.S. Eliot, John Milton and Abd al-Sabur and the light that is shed by them is a precious one. But what happens to Wicker himself when he sets off in search of "real'' or "fake" martyrdoms is significant. Having dusted off Aquinas, the writings of Clement of Alexandria and then of Augustine and John Milton, he finds himself, unsatisfied, turning instead to the world of the twentieth century less by theological speculation than human example, by the luminous figures of Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe and Franz Jagerstatter (all in the Nazi era), the Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, and Margaret Hassan. This is surely a proper method and a vital one; after all, an abstract, ethical martyrdom may add up well on paper but it may never be an embodied, human experience.

It is, of course, in the tortured context of the Middle East that relationships between martyrdom, violence, suicide and revenge emerge with a new, brutal clarity. We might protest again that an intense politicisation of religion in the heat of confrontation inevitably corrupts the language of religion itself. But in a world of suicide bombings, people cannot be expected to be "clear-headed", to use a phrase Wicker himself adopts. They live, day to day, by drawing what they might from the rubble of their own experience and reconfiguring it as best they can.

Where does all this leave us? In several different places, to be sure. Wicker asks, nobly, if the practice of charity might become the great context in which our understandings of martyrdom come to life. It is charity, of course, which is in shortest supply at the moment. A broader and more hopeful argument may be glimpsed in the midst of the travail: "if... witnessing to human justice and peace is a category of martyrdom, may it not also be a calling by God from within some other faith, or even from within a mixture of faiths?" But what is significant, and even precious, about the book is its essential fragility. It is a model of collaboration, though not a robust one, and the reader might reflect that Wicker and his co-authors do very well even to attempt it. It remains an incitement to think again, to reflect more profoundly and perhaps more boldly, and to acknowledge that we, too, are participants. Andrew Chandler