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Lacey Baldwin Smith Can Martyrdom Survive Secularization? THE ADVENT OF THE SU IC ID E BOMBER AS A GLOBAL PH ENO M ENON during the past decade and a half has vastly increased our interest in but only marginally improved our understanding of martyrdom. The word remains as mysterious, hard to define, and highly explosive as ever. Modem scholars much prefer the term “self-sacrifice” to martyr­ dom largely because it reveals the complexities of the subject: to what extent does the self gain by the act of sacrifice and is the sacrifice indi­ vidualistic or communal and its motivation economic, political, reli­ gious, or social? Martyrdom, in contrast, is, in its strictest sense, the witnessing unto death of divine truth. Self-sacrifice may be a better analytical tool for the study of martyr­ dom but it places the focus more on the actors, the martyrs themselves, their motives and personalities, and less on the society that defines and awards the title of martyr. Martyrdom is as much a reward granted by the community as it is a display of courage and endurance achieved by the individual in the face of torture and execution. As Saint Augustine often said, “it is not the penaltywhich makes a martyrbut the cause” (Augustine, 1953: 35). Since this article is a historical survey of how the willingness to die for a cause has over the centuries tended to lose its religious orientation and increase its political potency, thereby muddying both its meaning and function, it seems best to stick to the historic term “martyr,” stemming from the Greek word “witness,” if only because it connotes—better than self-sacrifice—the interplay between those who make the sacrifice and the society that establishes the cause and that accords them their name. social research Vo! 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 435 All societies have their martyrs, those semi-legendary spiritual heroes whose style of death embodies the values most dear to the soci­ eties they represent. Those values were expressed in religious terms because originally all authority was seen as stemming from the divine and the welfare of the state was closely allied to the welfare of the gods. For most of the Western world the early Christian martyrs remain the historic prototype for all who would make “death count for life” (Erikson, 1969: 197). The blood of the early Christian martyrs was far more than the seed of the Christian church; it was the stuff from which myths and fantasies were spun. Medieval Europe regarded “stern saints and tortured martyrs” as far more meaningful role models than mili­ tant barons and armored knights because a martyr’s exquisite suffering and death made, as Saint Cyprian asserted, “life more complete” and led to glory and life eternal (Cyprian, 1869: 235). The early Christians derived both their use and theory of martyr­ dom from the story of the death of Socrates and the Judaic legends of Eleazar and the Maccabean brothers. The crucifixion was ever before their eyes and they sought to emulate in their own deaths the agony of the dying Christ upon the cross. Saint Cyprian was explicit: the martyr in his prolonged torture and death stood “immovable, the stronger for his suffering,” resolved that in the “brutality of the executioner Christ Himself is suffering more in proportion to what he suffers” (Cyprian, 1869: 233). The early Christians viewed themselves as warriors in the endless battle between good and evil, a battle in which the devil did not limit himselfto the pollution and corruption of tyrants and human institutions but was working from within, seeking to defile the immor­ tal souls of men and women. They sought to nourish and advertise a new concept of the divine, one that had nothing to do with a pantheon of earth- and ocean-bound gods or household deities but with a cosmic force, a tiny spark of which was implanted in each human soul. Christians battled not with Rome; in their eyes they remained loyal citizens of the empire. Nor were they defending a militant church that demanded absolute and unconditional allegiance; no such institu­ tion had as yet taken shape. Instead, their agony was a demonstration 436...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 435-460
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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