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CONFLICT AND MARTYRDOM AFTER 11th SEPTEMBER 2001
One of the most troubling innovations that has hit the world since the end of the Cold War, and especially since September 11th 2001, has been the adoption of suicidal bombing as a strategy. The victims take it simply as murderous terrorism; the perpetrators as martyrdom. Which is true? What is meant by martyrdom in such a context? This paper is an attempt to answer this question.
Of course, there have been suicidal martyrs before. St. Augustine discussed some of them in the early chapters of the City of God. And there have been suicidal killers, like the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, who flew their guided bombs into American warships in the Pacific, blowing themselves up in order to destroy their targets. But kamikaze tactics were soon overtaken by the arrival of more efficient weapons, such as cruise missiles. By the 1980s or thereabouts, smart technology had made military suicide obsolete. Even nuclear deterrence was never designed to be suicidal. It simply proposed the suicide of civilisation as a practical possibility, perhaps a virtual certainty in the long run.
Of course, in World War II there was plenty of heroic self-sacrifice for one’s friends. But intentionally committing suicide for a cause is quite a different matter, for the suicide’s death is not an unwanted side-effect of some larger operation. It is a consciously chosen end. Death itself, in this context, appears as a solemn vocation, or calling: part of the very purpose of the suicidal action, which is designed not just to kill people, but to reveal to the world what the whole conflict is about. The suicidal crimes of Al-Quaida and the other terrorist organisations have brought back into sharp focus a question implicitly posed to us when we saw the airliners flying into the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001: what is the individual life worth? What is it for?
My answer is: the purpose of life is to die well. And that means dying with love, not hate, even if life is a battle. Shakespeare understood this. I am constantly reminded of the little-known or noticed sentence he gives to Williams, a common soldier in King Henry V’s army, the night before the battle of Agincourt: ‘I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how could they charitably dispose of anything when blood is in their argument?’
Now dying well is a theological matter, as Shakespeare saw in his reference to charity. Gandhi, too, understood the point of dying well: ‘Just as one must learn the art of killing in training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence’. But Christianity goes much further: for the death of Jesus is the quintessential case of dying well. Yet his terrors in the garden of Gethsemane show that he was revolted, even panicked, by the death he was going to be sentenced to. He did not choose, let alone want, to be executed as the dangerous trouble-maker he clearly was. The point is rather that it was obvious from the start that the sort of life he was leading would inevitably end in execution. He knew this early on, as Mark points out: ‘He began to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death…’ But what was this sort of life? Herbert McCabe got the point exactly right, when he wrote: ‘When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate to him because he shows the humanity that lies hidden in us - the humanity of which we are afraid. He is the human being that we dare not be. He takes the risks of love which we recognise as risks and so for the most part do not take. Mostly we settle for being what we are, what we have made of ourselves. We settle for the person that we have achieved or constructed; we settle for our own self-image because we are afraid of being made in the image of God’. In other words, to put it bluntly, if you become fully human, if you love people enough, you will be killed. This is clear from the lives of people who are like ourselves except that they do take the necessary risks. What is more, they are killed by people like us, who fail to take the risks. The deaths of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Franz Jagerstatter exemplify this truth.
In short, the life of Christ shows us what being fully human demands. And his execution shows what happens to people who live up to these demands. As Herbert McCabe went on to say: ‘The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through all progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist’.
This love that casts out fear is the opposite of violence, as St. Paul’s understanding of the Passion makes clear. John Robinson got this right when he wrote: ‘the only way evil ever wins victories is by making a man retort by evil, reflect it, pay it back, and thus afford it a new lease of life. Over one who persistently absorbs it and refuses to give it out, it is powerless. It is in this kind of way that Paul sees Christ dealing with the forces of evil – going on and on and on, triumphantly absorbing their attack by untiring obedience, till eventually there is nothing more they can do. Or, rather, there is one thing more – and that is to kill Him. This they do. But in the very act they confess their own defeat’. Here surely lies the answer to the suicidal terrorist, whose purpose is always ‘paying back’ evil with more evil, and thus allowing the powers of evil to win in the end.
But, we may ask, what does becoming fully human mean? Are we not human already? How can we become more so? The answer to this question is given by the picture from Genesis which governs our Judaeo-Christian culture. By eating of the fruit which gives knowledge of good and evil, people fall either for becoming subhuman, like the snake which seduces them in the myth, or for becoming superhuman like the gods whose extraordinary power we foolishly think we can be relied on to wield responsibly. In short, Genesis teaches that we are condemned to oscillate endlessly between two nightmares, for fear of being truly human, for fear of reality. Some people think this is a hopelessly obsolete way of seeing things: part of a fundamentalist myth we have grown out of. But the history of our time demonstrates its validity all too dramatically. For, as we all know, the myth in Genesis goes on to tell us that the first crime fallen humanity is lured into is the deliberate killing of the innocent. And we are still at it: constantly tempted, in this twenty-first century, either to enter into the brutishness of actual war or to grasp at being gods by brandishing virtually omnipotent weapons in the hope of preventing it. In either case, the killing of the innocent, those who have done us no harm, is accepted as inevitable. That much is clear from September 11th and its aftermath, even if it has not been clear to everybody since 1945.
If this is a true picture of how things are in the world, then I think we can make sense of the suicidal terrorist. He or she is a person who has partly understood the picture, but thinks it is possible to take a short cut to becoming the person he is called to become. Suicidal terrorism is a travesty because it seeks to avoid the need to overcome ‘the fear of the love that casts out fear’ by going through the garden of Gethsemane. The genuine martyr is one who does confront that fear, and fulfils his vocation by loving people to the end despite it. His or her death is unavoidable only because the world cannot understand the sign that his death provides, the sign of its own sin, its refusal of love, and therefore decides to destroy him. In being killed, the genuine martyr shows up the mess we have made of the world, a mess we can cope with only by hiding it from ourselves, by making the martyr into a scapegoat. The point of martyrdom, then, is that it publicises the bad job human beings have made of becoming human. It shows up the ‘sin of the world’ for what it really is. This is also part of the purpose of the suicidal terrorist’s action, as I have already suggested. But he or she cannot completely fulfil it, because a decision has been taken to pay back the evil forces in their own coin, and thus to abort the process of becoming fully the person the terrorist is called to be. He kills himself because he cannot wait to let the world kill him instead.
At this point the question arises, how to tell the genuine martyr from the fake? This is of course a theological question. Aquinas tackles it in his classic exposition of Christian martyrdom in the Secunda Secundae Q. 124. First of all, martyrdom, he says, is a gift from God; a vocation. This comes out in his first article, which asks the seemingly dry question: is martyrdom the act of a virtue? To this he answers yes, for he intends to go on to discuss which virtue(s) are necessary for genuine martyrdom. But there are difficulties. The first is that the ‘Holy Innocents’, that is the children killed by Herod to try to ensure that Jesus would not survive beyond infancy, have been universally regarded by the church as genuine martyrs. Yet they were too young to have developed any virtues. How come then that they are martyrs? The answer has to be that they won the glory of martyrdom as a divine gift. Following Augustine, Aquinas argues that ‘the shedding of blood for Christ’s sake is a substitute for Baptism’: and of course baptism is a gift. In other words, ‘just as when infants are baptised, Christ’s merit works through baptismal grace to win for them eternal glory, so when they are killed for Christ his merit effectively achieves for them the glory of martyrdom'.
Because martyrdom is a gift, not something you can earn by your own efforts, it follows that you cannot become a martyr simply by courageously committing suicide in however just a cause. Indeed, to rush into martyrdom is presumptuous and dangerous. Aquinas points this out as a possible objection to the view that martyrdom is an act of virtue. And although he gets round the difficulty in his reply, the point about presumption seems valid, as I shall argue in a moment. Meanwhile, further objections need to be considered, however: for example that of Samson. For, of course, Samson is a suicidal terrorist. Yet he is also a kind of martyr. Aquinas’s solution is that God told Samson to do what he did, as recorded in Judges 16:28. Furthermore, the letter to the Hebrews praises Samson as one who ‘through faith conquered kingdoms, did what is right and earned the promises’; albeit that he could not come fully into the glory of martyrdom until Christ had risen from the dead.
One implication of this argument is clear: whether someone is or is not a martyr is a matter of fact, not of mere private opinion. Describing somebody as a martyr is no mere ‘periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion’. It is a matter of sober truth. But in the absence of either scriptural warrant or the tradition of the church, how are we to discover whether someone has or has not been given the vocation of martyrdom? This is the point at which Aquinas’s discussion of the virtues comes in. For people receive the gift of martyrdom only if they live up to the virtues which Christ taught, and which Scripture and/or the Church teach on Christ’s authority, to be necessary. In other words, Aquinas’s argument gives us a basis for establishing the truth of martyrdom from a consideration of the candidate’s virtues.
Aquinas’s central concern is how to relate the virtues of charity and courage, and the fact of dying for the faith, to each other. First of all, the chief incentive to martyrdom is the virtue of charity, without which martyrdom is valueless, as St. Paul says: ‘if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever’. So, in brief, Aquinas argues that while faith is the final good of martyrdom, and courage, especially in the form of endurance, is the disposition which brings about the act, charity is the ‘directing virtue’ without which the act of martyrdom has no value. But he adds one or two further thoughts about martyrdom which are relevant to our present purpose. Endurance of death is praiseworthy only as it is directed towards some good found in an act of virtue, for example faith and love of God. And of all acts martyrdom is the most perfect, being the mark of the greatest love, for there is no love greater than that of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. So martyrdom entails death; for as long life lasts the person has not yet shown complete indifference to temporal things. Hence sufferings short of death are martyrdoms only in a figurative sense. Again, the martyr is certainly a witness: but not just to any good, only to the truth involved in our duty to God. Yet martyrdom can extend beyond confessing to the faith: the suffering involved in striving to perform any good act, or to avoid any evil one, for Christ’s sake can count as martyrdom. Indeed, Aquinas goes further than this: any human good can become a reason for martyrdom, inasmuch as it is directed to God.
So much for the classic theology of martyrdom. It is now necessary to consider the matter historically. According to Professor Bowerstock despite modern claims to the contrary, there is no reason to think that anyone displayed anything comparable to martyrdom before the Christians. The word martyrdom literally means simply witnessing, as in a court of law. It had no wider connotation until living openly as a Christian became a capital offence, because it involved refusing to honour, or give ‘witness’ to, the pagan gods. Not until we come to the death of Jesus do we find the prototypical story of a martyrdom. But the New Testament rightly refrains from calling Jesus a martyr, because his passion is not an instance of martyrdom. Rather it is the source of all martyrdom: the event from which the vocation of martyrdom springs. For Jesus is the unique witness to the love of God.
After the apostolic age martyrdom proper seems to have emerged in Anatolia. Ignatius was brought to Rome from Antioch, to be thrown to the wild beasts in the Coliseum under Trajan, around the end of the first century AD. Polycarp suffered in Smyrna in 155AD. From Anatolia martyrdom spread to North Africa, where voluntary suicide for the faith almost became a craze. Tertullian recommended it, as being the most obvious manifestation of Christianity, at least to the common people. Furthermore, the Romans were peculiarly fascinated by freakish behaviour and freakish spectacles, and the readiness, even eagerness, of Christians to be torn to pieces by wild beasts in public places would have been much to their taste. The ‘thrill’ of knowing that you are about to be thrown to the lions sometimes comes very close to suicide. ‘What a thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me!’ Ignatius wrote in his letter to the Romans, en route from Smyrna. ‘I shall coax them on to eat me up at once and not to hold off, as sometimes happens, through fear. And if they are reluctant I shall force them to it…Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil – only let me get to Jesus Christ!’. This attitude, close to sado-masochism, seems very different from that of Polycarp, who cleverly agreed, as the proconsul wanted him to, to shout ‘away with the atheists’ in the hope of saving himself. The point here is that the proconsul who demanded Polycarp’s confession meant by ‘atheists’ the Christians, because of their disbelief in the Roman gods; but to Polycarp himself ‘atheism’ referred to the pagan disbelievers in Christ. So Polycarp hoped to extricate himself from his predicament by a kind of pun. But to no avail; he had to go through with dying for the faith in the end.
The difference in approach to suffering for the faith which these examples reveal suggests there was a dispute between those whose thinking was essentially Greek in origin and influence (for example, Clement of Alexandria, d. c. 215AD) and contemporaries of Roman persuasion like Tertullian (c.160-225AD). Tertullian, a profound Latinist in his intellectual orientation, thought and felt in many ways like an ‘old pagan Roman’ in the line of Cato the Younger. As he said, in a memorably stoic phrase, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. So if it was all right for the stoic Roman nobleman who found himself in a jam to commit suicide for a pagan principle, like Cato after defeat by Caesar’s legions in 46BC, or like Seneca after the plot to kill Nero was uncovered in 65AD, surely it was better still for a Christian to be prepared to do the same for the true faith? This was the argument for suicidal martyrdom. But Greek-influenced Platonists like Clement or Origen thought of suicide as a form of cowardice. In his Stromateis (‘Miscellanies’) Clement insisted that the essential thing about martyrdom was that it was a ’witnessing’ to Christ, a way of confessing that Christ was Lord. Any death following upon such confession, was (to use a modern piece of jargon) just collateral damage. Although there were some Christian sects who praised, or even advocated, suicide as a form of martyrdom, Clement regarded them as heretical cowards. By provoking their own deaths, people following this route failed to attain to the status of genuine martyrs. Clement brought St. Luke in to clinch the argument: ‘if anyone openly declares himself for me in the presence of men, the Son of Man will declare himself for him in the presence of God’s angels’. Clement interprets this text as defining true ‘martyrdom’. Death is not absolutely necessary for martyrdom, for ‘anyone who has lived purely in the knowledge of God, and has obeyed the commandments thereby witnesses both by life and word, in whatever way he or she may be released from the body’. In short, the death consequential on such an open declaration must be forced upon the victim, if he or she is to be a genuine martyr. You cannot win the martyr’s crown by volunteering for it. You can only win it by witnessing and then taking the consequences. Worse still, Clement thinks, the suicidal martyr commits an extra sin, by forcing the magistrate who condemns him to sin in turn, by unjustly condemning him.
The very strength of Clement’s language here indicates the contemporary attractions of suicidal martyrdom in his own time. He perhaps sympathised with the Jewish tradition (and many Christians were of course Hellenised Jews) which viewed violent death with a special horror, and associated it with diabolical things like necromancy. If so, perhaps Clement’s opposition to suicidal martyrdom stems partly from this horror. Later, Cyprian of Alexandria (c. 210-258AD) (another Latinist of Roman sympathies, writing in the wake of Tertullian’s enthusiasm) had to work hard to disentangle genuine martyrdom from suicide.
It was in the end St. Augustine who put an end to the acceptability, if not quite the attractions, of suicidal martyrdom for Christians. Of course, there are many passages of the New Testament which indicate that volunteering for death is unacceptable. But these presumably did not weigh with those who were fascinated by the idea of volunteering to die in the Christian cause. Anyhow, the psychological fascination with suicide, to a certain kind of mind, however morbid it may be, is probably ineradicable, as too is the tendency to venerate popular heroes as martyrs. Augustine cites the case of Cleombrotus, who, having convinced himself, from the teaching of Plato, of the immortality of the soul (but presumably not of Plato’s objections to suicide), immediately threw himself to death from a wall. Augustine coolly comments, ‘leaving this life, (he) went unto another which he believed was better’. There have been many such enthusiasts: people who have thought that, once ‘saved’ by Christian faith, they had better get out of this world as soon as possible, before doubts or other temptations set in to disturb their new-found certainties. Of people like these Augustine tersely says: ‘If any man think that this is fit to be persuaded, I say not that he dotes, but I say that he is plain mad’. Be that as it may, it is certainly clear that the fascination with suicidal martyrdom had not completely died out by the time Augustine came to write Book I of the City of God. The Donatists, in particular, were attracted to it. Clearly it still had some influence in the West. But Augustine’s praise of acknowledged Christian martyrs like Pelagia, who committed suicide in order to escape rape, and his discussion of Samson, who committed suicide at the suggestion, perhaps the command, of God, was definitive. As for Samson, his action was excusable because ‘the Holy Spirit within him, which wrought miracles by him, did prompt him unto this act'. Samson’s suicide was no sin because it had been sanctioned by God. Without this sanction the suicidal hero would be committing homicide against himself, contrary to the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Here Augustine and Aquinas are at one.
Nevertheless, the example of Samson presents us today with a problem than it did not present to Augustine and Aquinas, because of our own ethical and scholarly concerns. These throw doubt on the Augustinian and Thomist conceptions of the historical authority of Scripture. Today, the story of Samson, in so far as it presents the hero as an instrument of divine purposes, cannot help suggesting that God is contradicting himself. For if suicide, and the intentional killing of the innocent, are both without exception sins, it is difficult to see how God could, without logical self-contradiction, command somebody to do it. And of course a logical contradiction says nothing at all. Why should we bother with stories like Samson’s? How can he possibly be an instrument of divine purposes?
The Samson story is a test case for two reasons. First of all Samson commits suicide; and secondly he indiscriminately kills both the guilty (that is, the Philistian rulers and military) and the three thousand innocent spectators sitting on the roof of the building to watch the sport. Now in his discussion of Samson’s suicide Augustine fails to mention the innocents: he merely talks about Samson having killed himself along with his ‘enemies’. Aquinas follows Augustine’s example. Neither of them considers Samson’s action in the context of the killing of innocents in a just war. Yet they both would have regarded Samson’s killing of the innocent as well as his suicide as forbidden by divine and natural law. Is it not clear that, leaving aside the excuse of divine sanction, Samson is just a suicidal killer who (we ourselves might be tempted in AD2002 to point out) commits his crime in the Gaza strip! How then can he be presented as an instrument of God’s purposes, a kind of Hebrew, or even proto-Christian martyr? Augustine and Aquinas both get round the problem by saying that Samson acts under the influence of the Holy Spirit, who of course is not bound by any moral rules laid down for us. But today this answer looks dangerously weak: why should something be forbidden to everybody else (including, say Hamas and Al Quaida) when it is apparently quite acceptable if done by ‘our side’? Furthermore, Samson’s action is done out of personal vengeance, not out of the love of others which casts out fear, and which alone gives value to martyrdom, as Aquinas points out.
Modern terrorism has made the traditional ‘solution’ of the Samson problem look increasingly threadbare. This is doubtless why many modern commentators approach it by a different route, saying that it is a rattling good folk-tale which we do not have to take seriously as revelation. But this solution has its own difficulties. If we can get round corners in ‘sacred history’ thus easily, perhaps the whole concept of God’s revealing himself in the Scriptures begins to unravel. Was Milton was the last person whose beliefs forced him to take Samson seriously as a problem in moral theology? A sign that Milton takes the Samson story seriously is that he deliberately alters the text of scripture. In Samson Agonistes Milton’s messenger reports that the innocent spectators escaped the fate of the guilty Philistine leaders. He presumably does so because otherwise, in his opinion, the story renders impossible the idea of Samson as an instrument of God’s justice. But playing about with the text in this way can be just another way of opening the moral floodgates. More troubling still, Milton solves the suicide problem by presenting the case for suicidal martyrdom all too persuasively. First of all he does so by confining the apparent logical contradiction that, in order to further His plan of deliverance, God persuades Samson to do things which God himself has forbidden, to the relatively minor cultic context, i.e. to explain Samson’s taking his first wife from an ethnically forbidden source at Timnah. His Chorus does not similarly wrestle with the weightier actions of suicide and murder: they simply appeal to God’s infinite exemption from His own laws. But more significantly than this, Milton’s Samson blames himself for his present predicament. As I have indicated, the book of Judges does not make heavy weather of Samson’s many breaches of his Nazirite vows, which anyway may not have been included in the original tale. But Milton’s Samson sees his own death as a vengeful penance for his past sins, as well as a way of single-handedly getting his own back for humiliations received. In other words, Milton’s Samson becomes something like a ‘martyr’ in the sense nowadays given to that word by the apologists for Islamic and other atrocities. He presumptuously volunteers for death, and thus for revenge, while claiming that what he is going to do has divine sanction. And the Chorus seems to accept this ‘solution’. In short, Samson sees himself, and the Chorus sees him, as a single-handed fighter for his own tribe in a liberation struggle. Given Milton’s own political sympathies this is understandable. This Samson does not lay down his life out of love for his friends any more than the original Samson did. He cannot charitably dispose of things, because blood is in his argument. In this respect, Milton stays close to the original Judges story. But he fails as a result to make Samson a saint and martyr motivated by charity, as, following 1 Corinthians and the letter to the Hebrews, Augustine and Aquinas try to do. Perhaps this does not bother Milton too much, since for him ritual veneration of saints and martyrs reeked of popish and prelatical superstition, and he had his own notion of how to celebrate the ‘victorious agonies’ of martyrs and saints. But this was not all. I suspect there is a great deal of Milton himself in his Samson, both in his sense of humiliation in having been made blind by excessive work in defence of liberty, and in his desire single-handedly to ‘pay back’ the tyrants and traitors who had betrayed the Protestant revolution.
To put it bluntly in our own context, if it was all right for Samson to kill himself and large numbers of innocent Philistines, as a way of showing up the sin of the world, why is it wrong for Hamas or Al Quaida to do the same? It seems to me this is a deep question which needs a better answer than Augustine and his followers can give. The answer has something to do with the sin of presumption.
George Bush is obviously right when, talking about recent events, he says that ‘all parties must say clearly that a murderer is not a martyr; he or she is just a murderer’. But suicidal terrorists are not just murderers, because they see themselves, and their followers see them, as martyrs. Now, given the Samson precedent, on what grounds is it right for the international community, not to mention George Bush, to deny them this title? The answer I think has to be that suicidal terrorism involves a distortion of the theological virtue of hope. It amounts, for example, to counting on God’s pardon without repenting, or on heavenly glory without merit. In other words it is hope for the impossible. Such distorted hope is a sin against the Holy Spirit, because it dismisses or disdains the Holy Spirit’s assistance in calling us back from sin. I have already noted that Aquinas points out that volunteering for suicidal martyrdom is a form of presumption, since it envisages obtaining the martyr’s crown without having gone through the necessary sufferings for Christ’s sake. And it is surely this which gives the lie to the suicidal martyr’s hope for glory. But on this account, presumption is an offence against a theological, not a moral virtue. Is it possible to give an account of it which can appeal to those who do not share the theological perspective which makes presumption a sin against the Holy Spirit? For without such an argument presumption may be understood as a mistake but hardly as a sin. Aquinas raises this possibility himself, and counters it with a good moral, as distinct from theological argument. Presumption, he argues, comes from vainglory (‘inani gloria’). It is vainglorious to count on the worldly glory of achieving things which are beyond one’s own powers or on an unmerited expectation of heavenly glory. Such expectation stems from the pride (‘superbia’) of thinking so well of oneself that divine punishment is not expected. I think it is here that the suicidal terrorist goes morally, as well as theologically, wrong. For presumption is not just a distortion of the theological virtue of hope, it is also a kind of pride, that is a vainglorious sense of satisfaction with oneself.
As we have seen, from Augustine’s time onwards, martyrdom was clearly distinguished from suicide. But the concept was further complicated when the concept of martyrdom was taken over into Arabic, in the Muslim tradition. It seems clear, as we have seen, that martyrdom in Islam emerges from contact with Christian roots, probably during the 7th C conquest of Palestine by Muslims, when Greek-speaking Christian churches were still in existence there. But for Islam the ‘witness’ of martyrdom is the martyr’s death, especially death in battle before the infidel. This is something that does not appear in the Christian context. The Church does not celebrate martyrdom for soldiers who die in a just war, as Aquinas points out. Whereas in Islam the martyr in battle can always count on great rewards in the afterlife. And virtually anyone who thus dies in battle for Islam becomes a martyr, as we have seen in recent years. A recent Muslim writer has noted that ‘..the belief that anyone killed "in the way of Allah" (that is, in self-defence, or defence of the Muslims, or of Islam) will go straight to Paradise, with all its rewards as mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadith, gives Muslim fighters a courage which Western writers and journalists marvel at, in a bemused way, as a kind of admirable insanity’.
It might be concluded that for Islam, a person can attain martyrdom by his own efforts. But perhaps this is too crude and simple. For Islamic martyrdom is affected by a peculiarity of the Arabic language. Bowerstock maintains that the verb shahid means both ‘to witness’ and ‘to be witnessed’ It follows, he says, that in the passive sense, the martyr’s death can only properly be witnessed, that is, the significance of his death can only be understood and rewarded, by God, or perhaps by an angelic power. Thus Allah is the primary witness of what the martyr suffers and does for the faith, just as Apollo was the witness of Socrates’s sufferings. However, I am told by competent Arabists that shahid does not have the passive sense attributed to it by Bowerstock. Rather it has an ‘intensive’ mode, unknown in English. In this use, shahid means something like being the ultimate witness, who can only be Allah. But either way, Muslim teaching comes close to the Christian teaching that martyrdom is a gift from God. And perhaps it explains why, in the case of Islamic martyrdom, the emphasis is on
Allah being the witness of the dying hero, rather than upon the dying person being a witness to Allah or to his demands upon us. Hence too the preoccupation of the Qur’an with people dying in the struggle of life (jihad), and being rewarded for their fortitude by the promise of joy in the afterlife, as a due recompense for their work, given by the one who has ‘ultimately’ witnessed it. On the other hand, unlike Christianity, Islam does not seem to give the central emphasis to charity (rather than courage) in the martyr’s soul. Perhaps courage is understood as a virtue equal in value to charity. If so, then here is a clear difference between the Islamic and Christian concepts of martyrdom.
It was not absolutely necessary for a person to die in battle in order to become an Islamic martyr. Pious Muslims who died en route for Mecca were popularly called ‘witnesses’, that is, martyrs for the faith. Nevertheless much of the emphasis in the Qur’an is on martyrdom in battle, and I doubt if the faithful soldier of Allah would have been ‘afeard there are few die well that die in a battle’. What matters is being recognised by God, since this is what matters for happiness in the next world. ‘O you who believe! Fight the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find ruthlessness in you, and know that God is with those who fear Him’. This emphasis on Allah’s act of witnessing the merits of believers is particularly evident in the attitudes to fighting on behalf of Allah as the Muslim tradition developed, and Islamic beliefs increasingly displaced tribal solidarities as the principal reason for going to war in Arabia. Eventually suicidal martyrdom for the sake of faith in Allah, far from being forbidden as self-murder, could easily become a praiseworthy act deserving of the highest reward, coming closer to the doctrines of Montanism or Donatism than to those of orthodox Christianity. Anyhow it was to have profound repercussions in our own day, especially in the light of the Intifada in Palestine and of September 11th 2001 in New York.
As we have seen, Aquinas rejects suicidal martyrdom as contrary to the inclination to love and cherish the self, as injuring the community of which we are a part, and wronging God who gives us our life. Yet the ‘rabbit out the hat’ case he puts for Samson marks the thin end of a very large wedge. Popular acclaim for martyrs cannot be avoided, however powerfully and perhaps rightly church authorities want to control such manifestations. As Enda McDonagh has said, ‘it would be foolish to resist extending the range of Christian martyrdom..to those who give their lives for their neighbour in political contexts’. How far should we go in this direction? Should Christians today be widening the scope of martyrdom to include other faiths? This is clearly a difficult, but potentially explosive, political as well as theological issue, and Aquinas cannot give us much help in dealing with it. He does not ask whether any other kind of ‘faith’, such as Islam, could be an adequate basis for martyrdom. This is not surprising, given his historical context, despite his obvious debts to Muslim philosophers in other parts of his work. On the other hand, he admits the Holy Innocents as martyrs although they were evidently not Christians, but Jews. Furthermore, if praying with people of many faiths, on behalf of the world, as happened in Assisi in 1986, and more recently at the instigation of Pope John Paul II after September 11th 2001, is to be encouraged, may it not be possible for martyrs of many faiths to emerge and be recognised by the Church for what they are?
Perhaps the Nazi-era cases of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe could lead the way here. In the case of Edith Stein, a Carmelite convert of Jewish origin, her fellow Jews were profoundly upset by the insistence of the Catholic saint-making authorities that she died, not because she was a Jewess, but because she was a Christian witness. The immediate cause of her death was said by the Church authorities not to be the fact that as a Jewess she was sent to Auschwitz, but that she was arrested, along with all Catholics in Holland with Jewish blood, after the archbishop of Utrecht, contrary to the express demands of the Nazis, had made public the Nazi order deporting Jews from Holland in July 1942. In short, according to the Church officials, Edith Stein suffered because the Church had defied the Nazis, not because of the Nazi persecution of Jews as such. They said she had suffered for her Christian faith, despite her own awareness that her passion was bound up with her Jewish identity. Their argument followed the line taken by Aquinas. But
they failed to note his concession to the significance of the human good as potentially divine. Hence the understandable fury of Jewish protesters, who saw no reason why her death should be singled out from the deaths of millions of other Jews killed by the Nazis. Their protestations were eventually understood, if not wholly accepted, by the Vatican. Certainly, the case broke new ground, as the Pope’s homily on her beatification in January 1987 showed. ‘In the extermination camp she died as a daughter of Israel "for the glory of the Most Holy Name" (but)…because of her great desire to unite with the sufferings of Christ on the cross she gave her life for "genuine peace" and "for the people". A martyr for peace was a new idea, whose time was coming even if, for the saint-making officials of the Church, it has not yet quite come.
The beatification of Maximilian Kolbe moved the process of widening the concept of martyrdom further on again. Kolbe was almost fanatically devoted to the Virgin Mary. In July 1941 he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner in a group sentenced to be starved to death in the prison camp because somebody had escaped. By 1972 he was already being venerated as a confessor, and had two healing miracles credited to him. Nobody doubted his sanctity. But he had not been treated as a martyr, because he was not arrested for his faith, but only in a general Nazi sweep of potential trouble-makers before the invasion of Russia. Nevertheless, despite reservations from various dignitaries who formed a special commission to review the evidence, John Paul II drew on his personal authority to decree, on October 10, 1982, ‘that Maximilian Maria Kolbe…shall henceforth be venerated also as a Martyr’. His death, the Pope said, exemplified the truth of St. John’s gospel: ‘There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends’. As Kenneth Woodward has written, in quoting St. John ‘John Paul II sanctioned the concept of the martyr for charity as a new category of saint – and with it the possibility of bestowing the title of martyr on a wider range of candidates’.
The case of Franz Jagerstatter may eventually take the process of expanding the category of martyrs still further. Jagerstatter was a pious Austrian village sacristan beheaded for refusing to join the Nazi army, despite advice to the contrary from all sorts of people including his own bishop. Up to the early 1990s the Austrian bishops were refusing to take up his cause, probably because they did not wish to give support to pacifism among Catholics. Jagerstatter’s beatification ‘could go beyond a declaration of sanctity of one individual to imply a preference for pacifism, which would have serious implications for the [Church’s] just war theory’ according to an official of the congregation for saint-making. Kenneth Woodward was told in Rome that the Austrian bishops did not want to endorse pacifism by promoting the canonisation of Jagerstatter. But time has moved on, and now (2002) the Austrian bishops have decided to support his cause, doubtless because of popular demand, and the relevant evidence is now with Rome awaiting its final outcome.
If the process for Jagerstatter is successful, the grounds for recognising martyrdom will include political considerations. For fear of endorsing pacifism, as a reason for denying someone the martyr’s crown, is clearly political, as well as theological. But of course martyrdom has always been a political matter. It cannot be otherwise, for defying the powers that be in defence of the faith is always and necessarily a political act. Confining martyrdom to the familiar circle of private matters, such as defence of chastity, has never worked, and cannot work today. Woodward rightly thinks that the process of ‘politicisation’ of martyrdom is bound to go much further. He cites the examples of numerous South American Christians murdered for the sake of social justice, and popularly venerated for that reason. ‘Their stories, told and retold, already constitute a modern Acta Martyrum; in some countries their names are inserted alongside those of the early Christian martyrs for remembrance at Mass’. Yet most of these people were not killed by powers hostile to the faith, but by fellow Catholics. Nor are they ‘martyrs of charity’ like Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his life for a single individual. They have become martyrs for whole communities of the oppressed and the poor; and have been killed for political reasons, as trouble makers. Some have even been agents of guerrilla forces. And most of them cannot be said to have died ‘for the Church’: most died, like Archbishop Romero, because they identified the cause of Christ with the cause of political liberation.
This development presents a challenge: for if, as the argument runs, 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? Jan Sobrino asks for a new kind of holiness, a ‘political holiness’, which would require the Church to think in a ‘new key’, even though the virtues required, and the temptations to be avoided, would not be very different from those traditionally required of the Christian martyr. But may it not be possible to conceive of going further still? If the Church wishes to preserve the ‘just war’ purely as an acceptable ethical category, and if somebody engaged in such a war heroically gives his life for his friends, but is not a Christian all, could he be regarded as a genuine martyr, despite the arguments of Aquinas? What about the passengers in the airliner which crashed into a field near the Pentagon, who overpowered the hi-jackers and forced it off its course for the White House, thus saving many innocent lives on September 11, 2001? Were they not martyrs, whether Christians or not? True, Aquinas points out that ‘no celebration of martyrdom is kept for soldiers who die in a just war’, but as he says in answering an objection, ‘any human good can become a reason for martyrdom inasmuch as it is directed to God’. Defence of the faith as such is not the sole reason for martyrdom. But if, as seems quite clear, the ‘just war’ is not a specifically Christian category, is it possible to conceive of (say) Muslims or Israelis who die for their friends being acknowledged as martyrs by the Church? Can we even imagine the canonisation (I take an extreme case) of an atheistic freedom-fighter who commits suicide by blowing up himself and his enemies to stop them from invading his home and killing his children, being seriously considered for veneration as a martyr by the faithful?
I suggest that the theological implications of opening up the concept of martyrdom, in response to current political events, are quite enormous as well as being unavoidable. I think we ought to be thinking about them now. Here is a potential growing point in our understanding both of human sanctity and of the meaning of ‘church’.